What To Do If You Think Your Tween or Teen Is Depressed?

“When your child speaks, listen without judgement.”

My 12YO daughter seems so down. What should I do?”

You are drawn in by the playful personality, the mischievous gleam in the eye, the witty and sometimes warped sense of humor humor and the smile …oh, that spirited smile.

These are the characteristics of a happy-go-lucky person, right? Not always. For many, this entertaining persona hides something darker and becomes the mask of depression.

Depression is more than just feeling down; it is a serious illness that doesn’t discriminate.  Men, women, girls and boys of every age, educational level, and social and economic background suffer from depression. Three-hundred-fifty (350) million people worldwide are caught in it’s grip. Left untreated, it can lead to eating disorders, self-harm, relationship conflict, substance abuse, even suicide.

An estimated 1 in 30 tween-to-teens suffer from depression. It can be triggered by specific situations or traumas (i.e. bullying, breakups, death, family conflict, friendship troubles, etc), genetics, or a developmental milestones (i.e. being one of the only kids without a cell phone, boyfriend, etc). Your child may also have a fewer happy-inducing neurochemicals. That’s the downside. The upside is that a child suffering from depression has a very good chance of overcoming the disease; and, it begins at home.

Parents are the first line of defense when it comes to a child’s well-being. Things to support your child include:

Check in with your tween-to-teen: Your child’s “job” is to separate from you and form his or her own identify. This can make communication challenging even on the best days. Don’t let that deter you; make the effort to talk to your child. Ask about classes, friends,  … anything. If your child can’t talk to you about the little things, they will never come to you with the big stuff.

Know potential red flags. Depression in tweens and teens often goes unrecognized. The symptoms can be confused with adolescent moodiness, changing hormones, and emotional flux. It’s difficult to know if this is a phase or something more serious. Possible signs to look for include: 

  • personality changes and behavior outside of your child’s norm.
  • fatigue or loss of energy.
  • increased frustration and anger.
  • being uncharacteristically “down” or irritable for several weeks.
  • lack of interest / withdrawal from friends.
  • reluctance to participate in activities, and hobbies that they once enjoyed.
  • changes in appetite (eating too much or not enough) and sleep (sleeping too much, not sleeping well, sleep avoidance).
  • obsessing over body image.
  • overwhelming feelings of worthlessness, guilt or a significant decrease in self-esteem.
  • stomaches, headaches or other body aches that can’t be explained and don’t respond to treatment.
  • Difficulties concentrating or completing simple tasks.
  • Declining grades.
  • Self-destructive behaviors, such as cutting or burning.

Know where to turn for help. Many tweens and teens will cycle through symptoms routinely. That doesn’t always mean they’re suffering from depression. When those symptoms last more than two weeks, though, it is time to enlist support. Visit the family doctor, an adolescent counselor or a psychologist for an evaluation. Consider connecting with teachers, coaches, school counselors, and other adults who have regular contact with your child.

Keep them healthy. The mantra of “be healthy” feels a bit cliche at times, I know. However, the cold and hard fact is that good physical health can contribute to positive mental health. Eat well, get rest, exercise.

Love them. Always. Your role as a parent is to be an advocate, support system and a supplier of love. When your child speaks, listen without judgement. Tell them, better yet, show them that you are always there no matter what. Repeat the message even when they say “I got it.” Tween-to-teens – especially those experiencing depression – need to know you will be there for them and that you love them fully and always.

Read Next On To Save A Life
19 Depression Memes That Will Have You Saying, “That’s Me,” All Day Long
Julie Smith
If you haven’t guessed by the website name, my name is Julie Smith. I’m a licensed psychotherapist, consultant and author. I am dedicated to navigating the often uncertain world of adolescents.

Get stories that matter straight in your inbox!

Your privacy matters to us.