Adolescent Development vs. Depression

I remember being a teenager and my father harping at me about “living like a hermit.” In my own very typical adolescent way, I just shrugged my shoulders and went to my room, closed the door, and shut out the world.  According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of hermit is “a person who lives away from others”.  Looking back on it, I can see how that would apply.  I did like living away from others.  In a lot of ways, I still do.  I’m introverted by nature—quiet, somewhat reserved, people-avoidant at times.  To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with that, just like there’s nothing wrong with being extraverted or a social butterfly.

In my case, I was growing up, changing, and developing my own ideas about the world and the people in it.  It was a confusing time and the last people I wanted to discuss it with was my parents.

Why?

Because I was a teenager and I really believed they wouldn’t understand what I was going through.

On a deeper level, I wasn’t convinced that they would care what I was experiencing, thinking, and feeling.

That is not a slam against my parents. What it is, is a point of fact in terms of how I felt and what I believed.  I was a teenager with my own worries and problems and they were adults with their own worries and problems.  It’s difficult to bridge that gap when both parent and child are exasperated with each other.

During adolescence, it’s pretty common for young people to have changing interests and ideas. It’s also common for young people to withdraw from family and other people they’ve been close to, or sometimes to experience changes in peer groups.  All of this is perfectly normal, and yet, adults may find this change in behavior to be abnormal, frightening, unwanted, or sometimes just plain annoying. As a parent, it can be difficult to suddenly feel left out of your child’s life—maybe your child has been increasingly moody and you don’t know why, maybe your child has retreated to his or her own inner world where you’re not welcome, maybe your child is barely recognizable because of changes in clothing or hairstyle.

Changes like these are indicative of ongoing development, and while they may not always feel like welcome changes, they’re well within the range of normal. It can be hard to embrace, but young people do need time and space to experiment in order to develop into well-rounded adults.

But how can parents know when or if they should be concerned? What if a few “normal” changes start to seem excessive or it’s not just one or two small changes, but several changes?  While many people believe depression will manifest as sadness, there other key things to watch for, especially in young people.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, if a young person is depressed, he or she would likely have five or more of the following symptoms (including at least one of the first two) nearly every day for at least two weeks:

  • An unusually sad mood
  • Loss of enjoyment and interest in activities that were previously enjoyable
  • Lack of energy and tiredness
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Changes in appetite—restricting food intake or overeating
  • Increased anger and irritability
  • Withdrawal from peers and social supports
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Grades dropping
  • Use of drugs or alcohol
  • Self-injury
  • Thinking or talking about death or wishing to be dead(www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/depression/what-are-the-signs-and-symptoms-of-depression.shtml)

While some warning signs by themselves are not always immediate cause for concern—skipping one meal or over-indulging on dessert on occasion—a combination of changes that last more than a few days may be cause for concern.

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When in doubt, ask. And ask again.  The simple question of, “Are you okay?” can go a long way in opening the doors of communication.  It’s not uncommon for a teen to shrug and insist everything is fine, but just pointing out what you’ve noticed (without judgment!) can break down barriers.  Hopefully, everything is fine.  But if it’s not, you’ve opened a door to helping that young person.