5 Signs Your Teen May Have Depression, According to an Expert

Hannah Baker talking to her counselor in Netflix's '13 Reasons Why'
13 Reasons Why via Netflix

Signs of depression are not as cut and dry as you may think.

Signs and Symptoms of Teen Depression

Depression in teens is often something that goes unrecognized.

Because it's a time when hormones are raging and bodies are changing, parents often mistake common signs of depression for typical adolescent behavior.

At this point, you're likely wondering what those symptoms would look like in a teenager. Are they as entirely noticeable as they sound? What are things to look out for? How do you know if it's depression and not something else?

Allow Dr. Kate Harkness, a professor in the Department of Psychology at Queen's University and and expert in adolescent depression, to be your guide.

"Depression in teens presents very similarly to depression in adults," she states. "An important thing to note about depression is that the associated symptoms should represent a change in how your teen has normally been feeling or behaving."

Again, adolescence is quite the transformative period for teens, but Dr. Harkness that there is generally a start distinction between a lesser issue and a major mental health problem.

"It's very normal for tweens and teens to go through some emotional and behavioral turmoil as they transition into adolescence," she says. "What distinguishes these normal developmental issues from a severe clinical condition is whether the issues are causing significant distress to the teen or impairing his or her functioning at school or at home."

The signs of depression are easy to point out, once you know what they are and how they present themselves in teens. Read on as Dr. Harkness breaks down some of the hallmark symptoms of depression below.

Signs of Sadness

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Dr. Harkness notes that teary and sad expressions are generally a sign your teen is depressed, but sorrow may not be the only feeling they'll emote.

"Teens with depression can also show signs of irritability, in addition to or instead of, sadness," she states. "This would show itself in being more argumentative, blowing up at parents/siblings/friends/teachers, more frequent emotional tantrums, etc."

Loss of Interest in Activities

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Have you noticed your child seems less interested in doing the things that once brought them a sense of fulfillment? Don't believe it's just a phase, because this means something is definitely up with them.

"[They] will often stop doing the things that they usually very much enjoy doing and will report that they 'just don’t feel like' seeing their friends or doing their fun extracurricular activities," Dr. Harkness states. "They may withdraw and spend more time in their room and not want to engage with family."

Changes in Eating, Sleeping, and Energy

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Teens tend to sleep often, but Dr. Harkness points out that teens who depression will often sleep more than they typically do. The same goes for their eating habits.

"In teenagers, this can cause them to sleep more than usual and/or eat more than usual, although it can also be the reverse—having trouble falling or staying asleep and/or not eating," she notes. "Again, the pattern should be a change from the teen’s normal pattern. Of course, if a teen is having trouble with their sleep and appetite, this will often show itself in low energy—lethargy, needing to nap, feeling tired all the time, looking tired."

Problems Concentrating

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Problems concentrating are often overlooked as a sign of depression in teens, Dr. Harkness quickly points out. If your child's grades are dropping, there's probably more going on with them than you know.

"This is a poorly recognized problem that many teens with depression face—severe problems sustaining attention on cognitively demanding tasks, such as reading, schoolwork, listening to teacher lessons, etc.," she says. "Parents and teachers may notice this first at school. Grades may start to suffer and/or teens may refuse to go to school or do homework due to feeling overwhelmed by the work that they are not able to handle."

Preoccupation With Negative Thoughts and Behaviors

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Expressing feelings of worthlessness or insignificance is something many teens with depression tend to do. They'll quickly let the negative thoughts take over and dictate how they act.

"[They] may start to become preoccupied with their own negative thoughts and express feeling worthlessness," Dr. Harkness says. "In some (but certainly not all) teens, there may be a preoccupation with thoughts of death or being better off dead and/or engage in self-injurious behaviors such as cutting. It is very important for parents to stay calm."

Depression Resources to Turn to for Help

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As a parent, you may be wondering who you should turn to for help. While there are plenty of resources available on the internet, Dr. Harkness notes the importance of reaching out to your family doctor or treatment provider.

"[They] are the best sources for these resources, as they are often community specific," she notes. "However, if you're looking for general reading material, USA.gov and the National Institute of Mental Health provide evidence-based information about youth depression."