Depression in teenagers

school boy gazing forward

This article will answer common questions parents and carers ask about teenagers and depression.

  • What is depression?

  • How does depression affect the brain?

  • What causes depression in teens?

  • How can I recognise the symptoms of depression in teens?

  • What is the difference between adult and teenage depression?

  • How can I help my teenager with depression?

  • When should I take my teen to see a doctor for depression?

  • How can I take care of myself when my teen has depression?

During the teenage years, changes in the brain mean that adolescents can get quite emotional. These changes aren’t complete until their mid-twenties, and the last brain regions to develop are those responsible for planning, awareness of consequences and perspective. As a result, it’s normal for teenagers to be moody from time to time.

But if a low mood is significant and persistent, it may be a sign of depression. Learn about the signs of teen depression to look out for and find tips on what you can do to help.

What is depression?

Everyone gets moody, down or angry at times – these are normal emotions, especially during the teenage years. When someone feels this way for two weeks or more, though, and it starts affecting their everyday life, they could be experiencing depression.

Depression is a mental health issue that shows up as predominant feelings of sadness, anger or despair. Depression in teenagers is relatively common – 1 in 4 young people will experience some form of depression, and it’s more common with females than males.

The good news is that depression is highly treatable. Despite this, only 1 in 5 young people with depression get help, usually relying on an adult close to them to spot the signs and support them.

How does depression affect the brain?

Depression can physically change the brain, which can affect how you feel, think and act. One of the ways it does this is by increasing the amount of cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’) produced, which can negatively affect brain cell growth.

The parts of the brain that can be affected by depression include the:

  • hippocampus, which is important for learning and memory

  • prefrontal cortex, which plays a role in high-level thinking and planning, and manages attention and impulse control

  • amygdala, which controls aggression and processes strong emotions such as fear, anger and sadness.

The longer someone is affected by depression, and the more severely they’re experiencing it, the bigger the impact depression can have on their brain. Getting help for your teen early can help them to avoid, ease or reverse some of these effects.

What causes depression in teens?

There are many risk factors that can influence depression in young people, including:

  • biological – physical factors such as hormones, physical health issues and differences in brain chemistry

  • genetic – a family history of depression

  • personality traits and learned patterns of thinking – such as pessimism, self-doubt, low self-esteem, perfectionism and being highly sensitive

  • traumatic or stressful events – such as domestic violence, physical or sexual abuse, a death or divorce in the family, big changes in routine or lifestyle, and stress or bullying at home, school or online

  • a history of other mental illnesses – such as substance abuse, or anxiety or personality disorders.

How can I recognise the symptoms of depression in teens?

The symptoms of depression are different for everyone, but your teen might be expressing certain emotions more often, or may seem down, or may even be talking about feeling a certain way. Symptoms include:

  • feelings of worthlessness

  • extreme sadness or hopelessness that doesn't seem to lift

  • changes in emotions and more visible expression of them (e.g. anger, guilt or irritability), and you might notice these changes at a particular time of day – for example, your child can’t get up in the morning, as they are feeling very low

  • low energy levels and motivation

  • thoughts of death or suicide.

Changes in your teen’s normal behaviour might include:

  • withdrawing from friends and family

  • engaging in risk-taking behaviours, such as unprotected sex, or alcohol or drug abuse

  • changes in appetite

  • changes in sleep patterns, including difficulty sleeping, over-sleeping, or staying in bed most of the day

  • not performing as usual at school or extracurricular activities

  • trouble concentrating

  • a decreased interest in activities that were previously important to them.

What is the difference between adult and teenage depression?

While many of the signs of depression are similar in both teens and adults, there are some differences. Specific things to look out for in teens include:

  • anger or irritability, which is often the predominant emotion in teenage depression, rather than the overwhelming sadness seen in adults

  • oversensitivity to criticism or rejection, due to their extreme feelings of worthlessness

  • selective withdrawal, rather than complete isolation – teens tend to withdraw from some people, such as parents and some social groups, but keep up at least some friendships

  • unexplained aches and pains, as teenagers can be particularly prone to physical symptoms of depression.

Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish the signs of depression in teens from the mood changes that are a normal part of growing up. An obvious and troubling change in behaviour that lasts longer than two weeks may mean your teenager needs support.

How can I help my teenager with depression?

For most people, getting support for depression early gives them the best chance at recovery. It can also help to minimise the impact of depression on a teen’s life – for example, on their friendships, performance at school and hobbies.

Here are some things to try at home that can help your teenager manage their depression.

Be there to chat with them

It’s common for people to withdraw when they’re feeling depressed, but this can make them feel worse and even more alone. Try to reconnect with your teen and create opportunities for them to chat with you.

Put aside whatever you’re doing so they have your full attention. You could start by asking them what classes at school they’re enjoying or what they think about a TV show they’ve been watching.

If they aren’t too responsive, you could encourage them to talk to one of their friends or to connect anonymously online with others on the ReachOut Online Community. Don’t take it personally – sometimes teens just don’t feel like talking to their parents, or they may find it hard to chat with adults about some things.

Encourage your teen to challenge their negative thoughts

Writing down our thoughts is a good way to help us identify the ones that are making us feel down. Explain to your teen that just because we think something, it doesn’t mean it’s true.

For example, if they find themselves thinking, ‘No one cares about me’, they can challenge this thought by asking themselves if there are any exceptions to that idea and coming up with an alternative thought, such as ‘My sister cares about me.’

It's important not to insist that your teen's thinking is wrong, and to give them the opportunity to identify their own alternative thoughts. They are much more likely to believe alternative thoughts they have come up with than ones you suggest to them. Learn more about challenging negative thoughts on our Youth site.

Stay active as a family

Exercise can boost our energy levels and help stimulate hormones (such as endorphins) that help us to feel better. But when we’re feeling down, it can be hard to find the motivation to stay healthy.

Try to make exercise a family activity. Just remember to start small when trying to increase your teen’s activity level. For example, if they haven’t left their room for the past few days, a good goal might be to get them to spend time in other parts of the house. Invite them to share a meal with you in the dining room or to join you for a movie in the living room. After that, you can start thinking bigger: ask your teen if they want to join you for a walk around the block or to do 5–10 minutes of yoga at home.

Do some fun things as a family

Do some fun things as a family When we’re down, it can be hard to get motivated to do even the things we usually enjoy or find satisfying. This can make it especially hard for your teenager to keep up with doing fun things when they’re depressed.

Try to find some things that your teen normally enjoys, and do them together. For example, you could kick a ball around at the park, do some drawing, cook an easy meal, play a video game or watch a documentary together.

Learn more about self-care and teenagers here.

If your teen is interested in learning more about depression, they can check out this article on ReachOut’s Youth site.

When should I take my teen to see a doctor for depression?

Getting support as early as possible for depression and mental ill-health problems provides the best chance at recovery. If your teen has been experiencing symptoms of depression on more days than not, for two weeks or longer, seeing a GP could be beneficial. If they aren’t ready to get professional support, learn how you can help them at home here.

If there’s an immediate risk of harm to your teen or someone else, call emergency services on 000.

How can I take care of myself when my teen has depression?

As a parent or carer, it’s easy to get caught up in what your family needs from you. You might be used to putting your own needs last. When you look after yourself, though, you’ll not only feel better, but also be better equipped to help others. Taking the time to recharge yourself can be especially important when you’re supporting your teen through a tough time.

Here are some ways you can take care of yourself while helping your teenager with depression.

Challenge your own thinking and try not to take your teen’s changed behaviour personally When your child is going through a tough time, it’s easy to think that it’s a reflection of your parenting or that you’re to blame. Remember that depression can happen for any number of reasons, including genetics or things going on at school. What’s important now is that your teen needs your support. The fact that you’re actively looking for ways to support them means that you have your teen’s best interests at heart. Learn more about how to cope when you feel like a bad parent.

Stay in touch with your support network Make sure to lean on your adult friends and support network. You could have a chat with a trusted friend or family member or book an appointment with a GP or psychologist for yourself. Talking with another person can help you to put things into perspective or take your mind off what’s happening. If you want to chat with a family professional for free, ReachOut offers one-on-one support for parents and carers. Learn more about the program here.

Prioritise your physical health Getting enough sleep, eating enough nutritious food and taking regular exercise can help to maintain your physical and mental health. You’ll be less stressed, have more energy and feel better able to help your family.

Each person is different, so what causes depression in teens may vary from person to person. Check out some practical steps and strategies to support your teenager with depression.