“My youth seems sad and withdrawn all the time”
Is What I’m Seeing Normal?
During adolescence, it is normal to see youth spending less time with family and more time alone in their room or out with friends, as they try to establish some independence and an identity as their own person. You probably have also heard other parents of youth refer to them as “lazy”, “unmotivated” or “dramatic”. This is a common belief, although not always a fair judgment, because young people tend to have different priorities than their parents. Figuring out who they are and what is important to them is usually their priority. And yes, youth do tend to feel things deeply and what may seem like a small matter to you can feel like the end of the world for them. Keep in mind that their hormones and emotions are constantly changing. With all of the pressures and responsibilities that youth face, (such as keeping up with school work, a part time job, social demands and temptations, and thinking about their future), they may have a hard time coping just as an adult would. All teens feel sad from time to time, usually for an identifiable reason (e.g. a break-up) or because they are just generally feeling down. Typically, though, these feelings of sadness go away or get better over a short period of time, and usually don’t get in the way of your teen taking care of their everyday responsibilities (like going to school/work) or spending time with their friends.
Should I be Worried?
Depression is more common that you might think. According to a national survey of Canadian youth by Statistics Canada, 6.5% of the Canadian youth population (more than a quarter million youth and young adults between 15 and 24) met the criteria for major depression in the past year. If you have noticed that your youth seems sad and withdrawn and is not “snapping out of it”, you may have reason to be worried. It can be tricky to know what the problem is, however, as many teens prefer not to talk to their parents about their feelings or problems. But, if you notice that your youth has become withdrawn and has stopped doing the things he/she used to do, than he/she may have more than just the teenage “blues”. Your youth may be experiencing depression, if he/she is also showing some of the following signs:
- Looking tearful and sad
- Losing interest in things he/she used to like to do
- Seeming excessively tired, “blah” or having no energy or motivation
- Appearing agitated, restless, or seeming angry all the time
- Expressing feelings of worthlessness, guilt or hopelessness (e.g. “nobody cares”, “what’s the point?”)
- Drop in grades, attendance, or productivity at school
- Talking about hurting him/herself or wishing he/she were dead
- Having trouble concentrating, making decisions or remembering things
- Exhibiting major changes in his/her sleeping or eating habits or weight
- Emergence of regular drug or alcohol use
It can be difficult to tell if some of the changes you are noticing are due to normal adolescent changes, but typically, if your youth has stopped doing what he/she needs and likes to do, then there may be a problem. If you noticed several of these signs in your youth’s behaviour for longer than two weeks, you should try speaking to him/her about your concerns. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that your youth is “just being a teenager” or being “dramatic”; if you have a gut feeling that what you are seeing is not normal for him or her, then it probably isn’t.
How Can I Help?
If you are worried that your youth might be depressed, it will be important for them to speak to a doctor if they are willing. You can start by letting your youth know that you are concerned about them and that you have noticed changes. See if they are willing to talk about where these changes have come from, because it might be related to something that has happened (e.g. a fight with a friend, stress at school) and may resolve itself with time. It is important not to blame yourself because many factors can contribute to a young person feeling sad.
If they don’t know why they are feeling this way, or don’t want to talk, there are several things you can do or suggest:
- Don’t push them to talk but keep checking in and let them know you are here for them
- Offer to book a time for them to speak with your family doctor or school social worker
- Print information or a brochure on depression and leave it in their room
- Provide them with opportunities to spend time with friends or get out of the house
- Encourage them to exercise or engage in physical activity (e. g. walking, sports, taking a class)
- Encourage them to get back to doing things they used to enjoy (e. g. hobbies, extra curricular activities)
- Suggest that they express themselves through writing, artwork or media
- If things are hitting a crisis point and you are extremely worried, you can call a 24 hour crisis line.
If your youth is depressed, he/she probably will resist most or all of these suggestions, but it is important to not allow him/her to completely isolate him or herself. Encouraging your youth to be as active as possible can be helpful. Staying in bed with the covers pulled over their head is only going to make them feel worse. Getting outside, taking a walk, catching up with friends or being active can help to lift your youth’s mood, even if all of this seems really hard for them to do at first. Talking to a counselor can also be very helpful. If you are finding that none of these strategies are helping, it may be time to take your youth to see a doctor, because your doctor can diagnose the problem, rule out any medical causes, prescribe medication (if needed), and make a referral to an adolescent psychiatrist (who specializes in mental health disorders) or a referral for counseling. Although sadness and depression can be very hard to deal with, letting your youth know that you care and are willing to help can make all the difference.