About pre-teen and teenage depression
It’s normal for pre-teens and teenagers to go through ups and downs. Their sad feelings can last several days. When they’re sad, pre-teens and teenagers sometimes have trouble sleeping, eating, concentrating or getting motivated.
But depression is more than just sadness or moodiness – it’s a serious mental health condition.
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 changes have lasted – if your child shows certain emotions like sadness or behaviour like being overly tired and often irritable for more than 2 weeks, it might be depression
- how strong the emotions are and whether they’re there all the time, or come and go
- how much the emotions and behaviour are affecting your child’s schoolwork, relationships, physical health, enjoyment or everyday activities.
If left untreated, pre-teen and teenage depression can have serious long-term consequences. If you’re worried about your child, it’s important to look for the signs of depression. It’s also vital for your child’s development that you seek professional help as early as possible.
Depression is very treatable. Also, young people are good at learning skills to cope with problems. This can reduce the signs of depression and make it less likely that depression will come back.
Common signs of pre-teen and teenage depression
Sometimes pre-teen and teenage depression might be hard to spot. But there are some common changes in thinking, emotions, behaviour and physical health that are signs of depression.
Your child might:
- have trouble concentrating and solving everyday problems
- find it hard to make decisions
- seem forgetful and have trouble remembering information
- have negative thoughts that are hard to change or ignore, including thoughts about self-harm, death or suicide – for example, your child might say, ‘Life’s not worth living’ or ‘I can’t do this anymore’.
Emotions and behaviour
Your child might:
- feel sad, tearful, moody or irritable – your child might say they feel ‘empty’ or ‘numb’
- not be interested in or enjoy activities that they used to like
- have angry outbursts that are out of character
- feel worthless or feel guilty and blame themselves for things – for example, your child might say, ‘It’s all my fault’ or ‘I’m a failure’
- stop contacting or seeing friends or going to social activities – for example, your child might not want to go to a friend’s party, or your child might say that they feel lonely
- have unexpected changes in their academic performance.
Your child might:
- feel tired, unmotivated or low in energy
- be eating too little or overeating, which is causing changes in their weight
- have vague or unexplained physical problems – for example, stomach aches, nausea or headaches
- have sleeping problems – for example, insomnia, oversleeping or staying in bed for most of the day
- not feel rested after sleep.
Your child might have more than one sign of depression. The signs might be ongoing, or they might seem to come and go over a period of weeks or even months.
School problems or behaviour changes can hide 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 they’re having persistent thoughts about hurting themselves or that they want to die, seek urgent professional help. Call Lifeline on 131 114, or go to your GP, a mental health service or a hospital emergency department. People who are depressed are at increased risk of suicide.
Getting help for pre-teens and teenagers with depression
Depression is unlikely to go away on its own, but pre-teens and teenagers with depression usually get better with treatment. This means that seeking early help for your child is the best thing you can do.
Seeking help also shows your child that you care. Talking to your child and seeing a health professional together sends the message that your child isn’t alone. And most young people won’t seek help themselves, so your child probably needs your help to get professional support.
If you’ve tried to talk to your child, but your child has refused help or said there was nothing wrong, you might need to seek help by yourself to start with.
There are many professionals and services you can go to for help with pre-teen and teenage depression:
- a GP
- school counsellors
- psychologists and counsellors
- your local community health centre
- local mental health services.
These resources also have helpful information about mental health support for teenagers:
If you’re unsure, your GP will be able to guide you to the most appropriate services for your family.
Depression is no-one’s fault, even if it seems to run in your family. 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 reduce your child’s risk of depression.
Pre-teen and teenage depression: things to try at home
If your child has depression, there are important things you can do to help in your everyday family life.
Physical health and wellbeing
- Encourage your child to make healthy food and drink choices. Make sure you have a variety of healthy foods in the cupboard and fridge, and offer tasty and nutritious options at meals.
- Get your child to do some regular physical activity. Staying physically active can help to improve your child’s mental health. It might be as simple as taking a 10-minute walk every day to start with. You might need to do this with your child to start with, because depression can affect your child’s motivation.
- Encourage your child to get enough sleep. Pre-teens need 9-11 hours of sleep. Teenagers need 8-10 hours of sleep. If your child is having trouble sleeping, try not to let them nap during the day regardless of how tired they feel. Help your child make time for relaxing activities before bedtime, and encourage your child to avoid screen time in the hour before bed.
- If you can, make sure your child avoids alcohol and other drugs. Using these to dull sadness or pain can make your child’s problems worse.
Relationships and feelings
- Show affection in a way that suits your child’s age and maturity. Remember to tell and show your child you love them.
- If your child has trouble talking about feelings, suggest a diary or journal. Sometimes it’s easier to write things down than say them out loud. Writing by hand on paper can work better than using electronic devices.
- Suggest other people your child could talk with if they don’t want to talk with you – for example, aunts or uncles, close family friends, other trusted adults or your GP.
- Encourage your child to let you or another adult know if your child thinks things are getting worse.
- Share meals together regularly as a family.
- Try to reduce other family conflicts as much as possible.
- Make time in your family routine for things your child enjoys and finds relaxing. This could be reading, listening to music and so on.
- Spend time with people your child likes and trusts.
- Accept that there’ll be good and bad days. On the bad days, you might need to put everything else aside and just be with your child.
Strong parent-teenager relationships are good for young people’s mental health. A sense of belonging to family and friends can help to protect teenagers from mental health problems like depression. Your support can have a direct and positive influence on your child’s mental health.
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 depression will have it again or have some symptoms again in the future.
You play an important role in helping your child to avoid things that might trigger depression in the future. It’s also important to look out for warning signs you’ve seen before.
No-one is to blame for a setback. Continuing professional support can help your child find new ways to recover from depression.
It’s important to look after yourself too. If you’re meeting your own needs, you’ll be better able to meet your child’s needs.