What is teenage 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, eating, concentrating or getting motivated.

But teenage 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 like sadness or behaviour like being overly tired for more than two weeks, it might be depression
  • how strong the emotions are and whether they’re there all the time, or come and go
  • how big an impact the emotions and behaviour are having on your child’s schoolwork, relationships, physical health, enjoyment or everyday activities.

If left untreated, teenage 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, depression is very treatable and young people are good at learning the skills to cope with problems. This can help reduce the symptoms of depression and make it less likely that depression will come back.

Common symptoms of teenage depression

Sometimes teenage depression might be hard to spot. But there are some common emotional, behavioural, physical and thinking symptoms.

Emotional and behavioural symptoms
Your child might:

  • feel sad, tearful, moody or irritable – your child might say she feels ‘empty’ or ‘numb’
  • not be interested in or not enjoy activities that she used to like
  • have angry outbursts that are out of character
  • feel worthless, or she might feel guilty and blame herself for things – for example, she might say, ‘It’s all my fault’ or ‘I’m a failure’
  • stop seeing friends or going to social activities – for example, your child might not want to go to a friend’s party, or she might say that she feels lonely
  • have negative thoughts that don’t go away, including thoughts about death and hurting or killing herself – for example, your child might say, ‘Life’s not worth living’ or ‘I can’t do this anymore’.

Physical symptoms 
Your child might:

  • feel tired, unmotivated or low in energy
  • have large changes in appetite or weight
  • have vague or unexplained physical problems – for example, stomach aches and headaches
  • have sleeping problems – for example, insomnia, oversleeping or staying in bed for most of the day.

Thinking symptoms 
Your child might:

  • have trouble concentrating
  • find it hard to make decisions
  • seem forgetful and have trouble remembering information.

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

School problems or behavioural changes might 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 she’s having persistent thoughts about hurting herself or that she wants 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 your teenage child with depression

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.

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

Also most young people won’t seek help themselves, so your child will probably need your help to get 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 GP 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 on our teen mental health links and resources page and at Youth Beyond Blue – Help someone you know.

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.

Teenage depression: things to try at home

If your child is suffering from depression, there are important things you can do to help in your everyday family life.

Physical health and wellbeing
Here are some ideas that can help:

  • 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.
  • Encourage your child to get enough sleep. If your child is having trouble sleeping, try not to let her nap during the day regardless of how tired she feels. Help her make time for relaxing activities before bedtime and encourage her 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
You can try these tips:

  • Show affection in a way that suits your child’s age and maturity. Just tell your child you love him.
  • 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.
  • Encourage your child to let you or another adult know if he thinks things are getting worse.

Everyday life
These tips might help:

  • 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 will be good and bad days.

Strong parent-teenager relationships are good for young people’s mental health. A sense of belonging to family and friends can help protect teenagers from mental health problems like depression. Your support can have a direct and positive impact 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 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 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.

It’s common to feel stressed and under pressure when your child is diagnosed with depression. Remember to look after yourself too. If you’re meeting your own needs, you’ll be better able to meet your child’s needs.