By Raising Children Network, with the Centre for Adolescent Health
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Teen writing in journal

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  • Depression is one of the most frequently reported mental health problems in Australian adolescents.
  • By the middle teenage years, the rates of depressive disorder are twice as high in girls as in boys.

Depression is a serious disorder. It’s more than just feeling down or sad. Depression during adolescence can have long-term consequences. So it’s important to know the warning signs and how to help your child.

What is depression?

It’s normal for young people to feel the ups and downs of everyday living. Their sad feelings can last several days. When they’re sad, teenagers sometimes have trouble sleeping or getting motivated.

But depression is more than just sadness or moodiness: it’s a serious mental health disorder.

It can be difficult to tell the difference between normal sadness and depression. You can start by looking at:

  • how long the emotions and behaviour have lasted. If your child shows certain emotions such as sadness, or behaviour like being overly tired, for more than two weeks, your child might have depression
  • how bad the emotions are and whether they are there all the time, or coming and going
  • how big an impact the emotions and behaviour are having on your child’s schoolwork, relationships and physical health.

If left untreated, depression can have serious long-term consequences. If you’re worried about your child, it’s important to look for the symptoms of depression. It’s also vital for your child’s development that you seek professional help as early as possible.

On the positive side, young people are good at learning the skills to cope with problems. This can help reduce the symptoms of depression and the likelihood of relapse.

Many factors influencing depression will be outside your control. But there’s a lot you can do every day to foster your child’s mental health and wellbeing and reduce your child’s risk. Read more in our article on mental health and wellbeing.

Common symptoms of depression

Sometimes a child’s depression might be hard to spot. But common symptoms include the following:

  • sadness, tears, moodiness or irritability – your child might say she feels ‘empty’ or ‘numb’
  • lack of interest in activities your child previously liked
  • tiredness, lack of motivation or low energy
  • feelings of worthlessness, guilt or self-blame – your child might say ‘It’s all my fault’ or ‘I’m a failure’
  • difficulty concentrating, making decisions or remembering information
  • isolation from friends and social activities, or comments about feeling lonely
  • large changes in appetite or weight
  • vague or unexplained physical problems – for example, tummy aches and headaches
  • sleeping problems – for example, insomnia, oversleeping or staying in bed for most of the day
  • pattern of persistent negative thoughts, including about death, hurting or killing himself – your child might say ‘Life’s not worth living’.

Your child might experience more than one symptom of depression. The depression might be ongoing, or might appear to come and go over a period of weeks or even months.

School problems or behavioural changes might mask an underlying mental health problem. That’s why it’s important to seek help from a health professional if you have any concerns about your child’s emotions or behaviour.

If your child tells you she is having persistent thoughts about hurting herself or that she wants to die, seek urgent professional help. Call Lifeline (13 11 14), or go to your GP, a mental health service or a hospital emergency department. People who are depressed are at increased risk of suicide.

Risk factors for depression

Risk factors for depression are thought to include:

  • factors that are individual to your child, such as being highly anxious or sensitive or having low self-esteem
  • family conflict or peer problems
  • behavioural factors, such as substance misuse or abuse
  • life events or experiences, including a recent death, neglect or physical abuse
  • school factors – for example, a negative experience such as being bullied or problems with the transition to secondary school.

Sometimes the risks for and causes of depression aren’t obvious. And sometimes depression just happens, and there’s no obvious single cause. Depression is no-one’s fault, even if it seems to run in your family.

There is a strong link between the quality of parent-teenager relationships and young people’s mental health. It’s thought that healthy family relationships have a protective effect and might reduce the chances of your child experiencing a mental health problem like depression. Your support can have a direct and positive impact on your child’s mental health.

Getting help for your child with depression

You might feel uncomfortable talking to your child about mental health problems. Depression is unlikely to go away on its own, so seeking early help for your child is the best thing you can do.

Many young people won’t seek help themselves, so your child will probably need your help to access professional support. If you’ve tried to talk to your child about your concerns, but he refused help or said there was nothing wrong, you might need to seek help by yourself to start with.

There are many people you can go to for help with teenage depression:

  • your GP – keep in mind that sometimes children are more comfortable talking to a new doctor, a doctor who doesn’t also see their parents, a younger doctor or a doctor of the same gender
  • school counsellors
  • psychologists and counsellors
  • your local community health centre
  • local mental health services.

You can also find helpful information at our mental health links and resources page and the youthbeyondblue get help page.

If you’re unsure, your GP will be able to guide you to the most appropriate services for your family.

Wanting to help your child shows you care. Talking to your child and seeing a health professional together sends the message that your child isn’t alone.

Things to try at home

If your child is suffering from depression, there are important things you can do:

  • Encourage your child to make healthy food and drink choices. Make sure you’ve got plenty of healthy food in the cupboard and fridge, and offer tasty and nutritious options at meals.
  • Get your child to participate in regular physical activity. Staying physically active can help to improve your child’s mental health. It might be as simple as taking a walk every day to start with.
  • Make sure your child gets enough sleep. Or, if your child is having trouble sleeping, make time for resting in your family routine. You can read more information in our article on sleep for children: 12-15 years.
  • Try to reduce other family conflicts as much as possible.
  • If you can, make sure your child avoids alcohol and other drugs. Using these to try and lessen sadness or pain can make your child’s problems worse.
  • Make time in your family routine for things your child enjoys and finds relaxing. This could be reading, listening to music and so on.
  • If your child has trouble talking about feelings, suggest a diary or journal. Sometimes it’s easier to write things down than say them aloud.
  • Suggest some other people your child could talk to if she doesn’t want to talk to you – for example, aunts or uncles, close family friends, a trusted sports coach or religious leader, or your GP.
  • Spend time with people your child likes and trusts.
  • Encourage your child to let you or another adult know if he thinks things are getting worse.
  • Accept that there will be good and bad days.

Recovering from depression

Overcoming depression can take time, especially if your child has had it for a while. Keep giving your child as much support as you can, even during the difficult times.

The recovery process will usually involve some ups and downs. Many young people who experience an episode of depression will have another episode, or experience some symptoms again in the future.

You play an important role in helping your child to avoid things that might trigger another episode of depression. It’s also important to be on the look out for warning signs you’ve seen before. These might indicate a relapse.

No-one is to blame for a setback. Continuing professional support can help your child find new ways to manage this illness.