Your daughter has just come home from school. She makes a bee-line to her bedroom where she pulls off her jeans, puts on sweatpants and plops into bed. Shades drawn, lights off. She has scarcely had the energy to muster a "hello," let alone take her shoes off. She won't come out for dinner and grumbles for you to go away when you knock on her door. When you think about it, you can't remember the last time she went out with friends on the weekend, or expressed any desire to do, well... anything. Is this "normal"?
The answer is complicated. Does it happen every day? And for how long? Is it a notable change from her norm? Teenagers today have developed a bad reputation for being moody, hostile, rebellious, apathetic and angry. In fact, parents seem to expect that with the dawning of adolescence, their once sweet child will undergo a hormonal surge that will leave them as angry and argumentative monsters. Most parents dread adolescence and echo off horror stories of drug dealing and conduct disorders and torn relationships. Many TV shows today also reinforce this idea.
In actuality, most teenagers do become a little more moody or irritable. They are developing their sense of self, their bodies are changing, there ARE hormones, and there's lots of confusion, anxiety and insecurity. The western world's view of the teenager, however, is often grotesquely exaggerated. And its not doing our teens any favors. Actually, parents and teachers are more and more likely to chalk up what may be serious problems with mental illness, depression, anxiety, or important issues such as bullying, to "just being a teenager." And that, right there, is how millions of teens who need help get overlooked. It is how families and friends are shocked by suicides and self-harming behavior.
So what is the difference between normal adolescent behavior and symptoms of greater issues such as depression? When do you seek help?
A sudden lack of social interest where it once existed. Did your teenager once love to hang out with friends, go to the mall, watch movies and engage in social activity? Do they now express little interest in going out or staying in with friends?
Dropping out of activities, hobbies, clubs. Has your son or daughter dropped drama club and decided to quit soccer? Are they expressing other interests or potential activities, or none?
A sudden lack of friends. Is your teen suddenly never texting, or on the phone?
Extreme exhaustion. Of course, teenagers need lots of sleep, but does it seem excessive? Would they rather go to bed every Friday night at 7 instead of hanging out with friends or seeing a movie?
Big changes in eating habits. Teens also tend to eat more, as they grow and develop. Look for a lack of appetite, or sudden increases in eating or weight gain. Look for emotional or bored eating.
Little enthusiasm or excitability in areas that they would normally be excited about. No interest in traveling to Europe or picking out a car? Skipping out on your offer to buy them tickets to see their favorite band?
Excessive alone time. Are they spending an increasing amount of time alone? Do they prefer to go straight to their room? Does talking or engaging with family seem to make them irritable? Would they rather be in their room alone than watching a movie with the family?
Combined, these things don't indicate "normal" adolescent behavior, they indicate pain. You may need to encourage your teenager to talk to you about how they are feeling, and listen without judgement. Talk to your them about seeing a therapist, or psychologist. Most of all, open up the dialogue, bring it up. Don't let it fester. And don't fall into the trap of belief that all teenagers are depressed and angry simply by the very nature of adolescence.
This post is based on the author's own experience suffering from severe Depression in adolescence, as well as her current work toward her masters in mental health counseling. It originally appeared on FadforTeens, a new endeavor in mental health awareness for youth.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.