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How Do I Know If My Teenager Has Depression or is Just in a Bad Mood?

Acrylic paint thickens and hardens when stored incorrectly. My 16-year-old isn’t very good about making sure the tops of his paints are screwed on tightly or at all, and it’s been months since he’s touched them. The pandemic, it seems, has sucked every ounce of creative spark from my son’s soul. He’s sleeping more, but, honestly, so am I. Energy, motivation, and drive are hard to come by even for adults during these days. At a time when nothing seems to be normal, how do parents know when such changes in teenage behavior are normal?

Keep Communicating

Kailyn Bobb, Psy.D., director of psychotherapy at Clarity Clinic in Chicago, Illinois, says sharing in some of these moments with teens is a good way to help them open up. 

“Sometimes offering a bit about yourself can allow the other person to feel safe enough to share something about themselves,” she says. Saying, “You know, this whole pandemic has gotten me pretty down. I haven’t been sleeping so great and I feel tired all the time. How about you?” or, “I miss being able to go to work and do things. How are you dealing with these changes?” are good ways to lay a foundation for a conversation, she says. The key is not to listen in order to react, she says. Rather, listen to truly understand.

Stay Away from Fix-it Mode

Lecture-style conversations and formal sit-downs with eye contact are not the best approach here. Bobb recommends opening up with teens over a card or board game, during a walk, while cooking, or any other situation that can help reduce the “anxiety of speaking to an adult or authority figure.” It’s also an opportunity to actively listen instead of going into fix-it mode. 

A trick to ensure you’re engaged instead of waiting to respond: Reflect what your teen says back to you. For example, ask, “Just so I make sure I heard you correctly, you’re feeling frustrated that the Zoom class was not working?” suggests Bobb, instead of saying, “You should have messaged the teacher about it. Did you reboot your computer?” 

As out of control as the pandemic makes us parents feel with our own problems, there’s a real temptation for us to project this desire to make it better onto our teens. However, when you take the latter approach, “you not only dismiss what they are telling you, but you’re also telling them they are wrong or not doing enough,” Bobb says.

Be Attentive

“The most important and difficult challenge for parents with a teen who is out of sorts is to figure out what’s causing this,” says Dr. Martin Buxton, a physician and psychiatrist with adolescent counseling program Pinnacle Treatment Centers in Virginia. Teens often lose interest or lack motivation, but there’s a thin line between typical adolescent behavior and something potentially more serious, he says. 

The pandemic is an obvious trigger for behavior changes in anyone, so Buxton suggests parents play “hard to get” unless there are signs of depression, anxiety, or there’s a genetic predisposition to any of these mood disorders. “Don’t be too intrusive or too assertive in your inquiries,” he says. 

If your teen doesn’t want to participate in art, sports, or family movie nights and would rather take a nap or spend time alone playing video games, be quietly attentive to what emotions might be behind each moment. Don’t rush to confront the issue right then and there. Sometimes there will be an obvious trigger like the first day of virtual school. For my son, who has acted in the local theatre company for the past four years, it was the day that would have been the first day of community theatre season. 

What Do They Need?

Teens are grieving a loss of normal life due to the pandemic, and some sadness and loss of energy are to be expected. But is it depression? Symptoms of depression in teens can vary but may include: persistent sadness, even when circumstances change; disruptive or problematic behavior; loss of interest in activities; irritability; feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness; and changes in weight or appetite, according to the Child Mind Institute. If your teen is experiencing these symptoms, expressing suicidal thoughts, or you just feel that something isn’t quite right with your child, seek professional help. 

Otherwise, Buxton says parents should prepare to play a background support role, giving teens space to talk to the ones they think truly understand them: their closest friends. “Be sensitive to the psychological phenomena that the teen may seek solace and support from friends rather than the parent,” he says.

If your teen does open up to you, Bobb encourages parents to listen with an open heart. Forcing your teen to change their behavior is a huge no-no. “Even if it is something you perceive as minor, they may be testing you to see if you’re willing to listen and support them,” she says. 

As the new sketch pad and stretched canvases I bought my son sit in his dark closet, I resist the temptation to tell him to get up and paint. As for the acrylic paints, they can be replaced. 

“I have to be in the mood to paint,” my son says. 

“It’s hard to feel creative right now,” I respond. “I understand.” And I do.  

Kelly Glass is a freelance writer whose interests focus on the intersections of parenting, health,  mental health, and diversity. A big-city girl at heart, she currently lives in a smaller Illinois college town with her brilliant autistic teen son and an ambitious preschooler

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