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What Are Key Indicators of Depression in Teenagers?

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What Are Key Indicators of Depression in Teenagers?

Feb 16, 2021

As a parent, Identifying signs of clinical depression in your teenager can be quite difficult. Thomas Conover, MD, looks for negative changes in these key areas: school performance, participation in extracurriculars, social life, and family interactions. Learn how to assess these situations and when to seek professional help for your teen.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: Are you concerned that your teen might be suffering from depression? Now, sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between moodiness and actual depression, and that moodiness can be common in a lot of teens.

But psychologist Dr. Thomas Conover says you should look at how your children are doing in what he refers to as key life areas. That's school, extracurricular activities, social, and family life.

School Performance and Teen Depression

Dr. Conover, let's just start with school. Why is school performance one of the clues that you use when evaluating children for depression?

Dr. Conover: For teens, school is their primary area of function. It's, in my mind, equivalent to holding down a job or a career for an adult, right? And so if an adult is still functioning in their primary vocation, then that's a good sign. Same way for a teenager. If he or she is still doing well in school and not seeing a decrement there, then whatever is going on with the teen, you've got some reassurance that things haven't gone completely south.

Extracurricular Activities and Social Function in Relation to Teen Depression

Interviewer: What about extracurricular activities? Some kids just aren't into school, or don't necessarily perform well in school.

Dr. Conover: Well, I look for their performance in school with comparison to earlier performance too. So if you have a kid who was somewhat of an indifferent student and just wasn't that academically inclined throughout their school life, kind of a solid B/C student, then that's what I would be looking for the child to be doing going forward. So I'm not concerned if there's sort of indifferent performance when that's been the norm.

It's really looking at, "Has that gone downhill?" Do you have a child who normally got straight As and is now getting Bs and Cs, or a child who normally gets Bs and Cs who is now failing or having incompletes? That would be more concerning in terms of school performance.

And for those youths . . . let's say you have a child who's an average student and maintaining that performance, but who is an avid athlete, plays a sport year-round, and is withdrawing from that. That could be a concern as well. So looking at function in the academic realm is important, but there are other areas of function too, right?

So other activities are very important to look at. Social function. A normally developing or typically developing teen is a very social creature. It's a time of life where you're learning how to be independent, and you're transitioning in typical development from being reliant on your family as a primary source of your activities and values to your peer group, which in my mind and experience serves as somewhat of a transition to being fully independent. Having your own ideas about things, your own values, your own priorities for your activities.

So, in that vein, your typically developing 15-year-old is going to really want to be out there and socializing with peers. A lot of times, nowadays, that does take place over cellphones, social media, and the like. And so it's important to take that into account, that just because a teen isn't going out all the time doesn't mean that they're not socially engaged.

But a parent can reasonably expect that their teen is going to be interested in what's going on out there with their peers. And if they're more withdrawn or less interested in that than they used to be, that's a concern.

Family Function and Teen Depression

Then there's also family function, and it is normal and expectable to have a teen be less interested or less enthusiastic about certain family activities than he or she used to be. That is normal and expectable.

Then I would go back to the idea of, "Well, just how pervasive and intense is it?" Do you have a teen who says, "I don't want to go to family dinner at grandma's this Sunday. My friends are going out. I want to meet up with them," but who ultimately you can cajole and negotiate and get the teen to do it? Or do you have a teen who has a big blowup over that and ends up leaving the house and you don't know where they went? I'm giving fairly stark examples, but the gray area in between can be evaluated.

I haven't mentioned the threat of self-harm, or aggression, or worse, suicide. That would be an obvious red flag. If inquiry into a teen's mood or a parent making a request or demand of the teen leads to any sort of threats or acts of self-harm or aggression, then that's something that a parent would want to seek help for urgently.