Teens and Depression – Why Teens Are More Vulnerable, and the Risk Factors Parents Need to Know About

Teens and Depression - The Risk Factors All Parents Need to Know About

During adolescence, our teens will go through more changes than at any other time of their lives. Nothing will stay the same – their friendships, their bodies, their brains, their place in the world and the way they make sense of it. For many of them (and us!) there will be times it will feel confusing, exhausting and stormy.

During adolescence, the rates of depression show an alarming increase. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2015, 12.5% of adolescents aged 12-17 had at least one major depressive episode. 

There is so much that happens during adolescence that has the potential to widen the door just enough for depression to slip through and find its way to our teens. They will have friendship changes, their drive to experiment with their independence will see them feel a pull away from the warmth and protection of their family, and they will experience massive brain and body changes. As with all generations of adolescents, they will also be the first to have to negotiate many technological, global and social changes with much of the vulnerability of children, but with the world expecting them to behave like adults.  

Whey are adolescents more vulnerable to depression?

One of the cruel things about depression is that it doesn’t need a reason to show up – sometimes it grabs on without any reason at all. Even with all the knowledge and readiness in the world, depression isn’t something we can always protect our teens against – it’s merciless like that – but the more we can understand and anticipate the risks for our teens, the more we can work to stop depression from making their path towards adulthood darker than paths were ever meant to be.

  1. They’re becoming more sensitive to what others might be thinking.

    As little people, our children are able to take the world as it comes, knowing that we’re by their side when things get tough. They don’t tend look outside of themselves for information about who they are meant to be. They just ‘are’. This is exactly how it’s meant to be for a while. They need to understand the world from their own perspective first, with themselves at the centre, and as they grow, their reference points and capacity to think of things from other perspectives will also start to grow. 

    As they move into adolescence, they will start to expand their capacity to see themselves through the eyes of another. With the social centres of the brain at full volume, and an increase in oxytocin, ‘the bonding hormone’, teens will tend to become more self-conscious – conscious of themselves – as they start to think about the kind of people they want to be, and how they can create the world they want to live in. This is a great thing but the downside is that it can make them sensitive to what other people might be thinking of them, particularly their peers. 

    Acceptance is important for any of us, but it becomes so much bigger during adolescence. Understandably, when the messages that are coming back to them – or the messages they think are coming back to them – aren’t nourishing and positive, it can bruise them from the inside out.

  2. The pressures increase more than their brain power to deal with those pressures.

    The demands of friends, family, school, future (who am I going to be?), sex, alcohol, drugs can be a confusing time. During adolescence, teens will experiment with their independence from us, as they look more to their peers for guidance and acceptance. This is normal and healthy and how it’s meant to be – but it’s hard. They’re travelling down a new and unfamiliar path, at a time when the drive towards independence will be pushing them to let go of the guard rails. This means they will be capable of wonderfully brave things, and they will see the world in new and interesting ways, but it will also set them up to take risks and feel persuaded to experiment with things that won’t always be good for them. Taking risks and experimenting can be a wonderfully brave, life-giving thing to do, or it can create fallout that can cause breakage.

  3. Friendships – the good, the bad, the everything.

    Friendships are vital for teens, but they can be fraught with heartache. As teens move into adolescence, they can become more vulnerable to exclusion, bullying and rejection – all at a time when feeling connected to peers becomes more important than ever. One of the main developmental goals of adolescence is independence from parents. As teens experiment with this, their need for connection with friends will increase. When teens are disconnected from their peers, intense and ongoing sadness, anger or self-doubt can carve open a vulnerability to depression.

  4. Enough pillow time … or not.

    The sleep cycle sees a big shift during adolescence. Melatonin, the hormone that makes us feel sleepy, is released about two hours later in teens than in adults. This means teens won’t even start to feel tired until about 10pm-ish. The melatonin stays in their system for about 8-10 hours, so if they wake up before that, they’ll feel the hangover of that. Early wakings are often unavoidable because of early school starts. Sadly, the body can’t store sleep so if your teen isn’t getting his or her 8-10 hours of sleep a night (and many of them aren’t), they might end up exhausted. When the lack of sleep becomes chronic, it can contribute to the vulnerability to depression. Sleep is when the brain sorts out its ‘emotional baggage’. Without it, emotional experiences can stay raw and unresolved. As well as this, a chronic lack of sleep can increase the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone in the body, which can also add to the vulnerability to depression.

  5. Unhappy tummies.

    The gut and the brain are deeply connected, so when teens start to diet or eat poorly, or binge on alcohol, the effect of this on the gut can cause problems for mental health. Inside the gut are billions of neurons that send information to the brain and directly influence feelings of stress, anxiety and sadness, as well as memory, decision-making and learning. Another reason a healthy gut is so important for mental health is because it’s the storehouse for 95% of the body’s serotonin – a neurotransmitter that is responsible for mood. Depression is widely attributed to a drop in serotonin, and many popular antidepressants work on restoring serotonin to healthy levels. We know that probiotics seem to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and depression and this might be why.

  6. The joy and the heartache that is social media.

    Mobile phones and social media can open up their world in healthy, positive ways, but they can also open up the risk for cyberbullying and negative interactions – all of which can create a vulnerability to depression. Our teens are the first generation to move through adolescence with social media firmly by their side. They will find themselves having to learn tough lessons that we never had to. They are lessons about sexting, cyberbullying, and the capacity of the internet to make photos – and mistakes – accessible for everyone on the planet. Everyone. Forever. Our teens have the wisdom to navigate themselves through this, but not necessarily the desire to play it safe, or the ability to weigh up the positives and negatives consequences of their decisions. Technology can be a wonderful thing, or it can be a way for teens to really hurt themselves or each other.

  7. A fierce pop culture that is relentless in telling who they should be, how they should be, and how they should look.

    Research shows that when adolescent girls are shown idealised images of women, they become more unhappy with their bodies and more likely to feel depression, anxiety and anger. Increasingly, this is also becoming a problem for adolescent boys. Our teens are assaulted with images of ‘perfection’ everywhere they look. At a time when their bodies are changing, their skin is misbehaving, and they’re trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in to the world, it’s understandable that they might compare themselves to the glowing, confident, happy, carefree images they see in the media, and come out feeling ‘less than’. Even as adults we can fall into the trap. The risk is that eventually, they disconnect from their real selves and feel an emptiness and a loneliness, as they chase the ridiculously idealistic prescriptions for who they should be, how they should be, and how they should look. 

Why are girls more at risk?

 Girls are twice as likely to be diagnosed with a mood disorder as boys, but girls might be protected from greater harm because of their willingness to seek help and to talk things over with people close to them. Researchers aren’t certain about why the depression rates are escalating, particularly in adolescent girls, but they have a few very compelling theories:

  • Social media.

    Girls tend to spend more time on social media sites, while boys more on gaming sites. Research in young adults has found that the more time they spend on social media, the greater the vulnerability to depression. There are a number of possible reasons for this:

    >  Social media tends to be saturated with images that can brew feelings of envy or inadequacy in the strongest of us.

    >  Social media has a way of evaporating time like it was never there. ‘I know I should shut it down, but just one more minute … okay, maybe five’. Playing around doing nothing in particular on social media can be fun – and we all need a bit of that – but too much can lead to too many feelings of having wasted time. 

  • Differences in brain function between men and women.

    Research has found that women are more sensitive to anything that has the potential to trigger negative emotions (such as negative images). 

    ‘Not everyone’s equal when it comes to mental illness. Greater emotional reactivity in women may explain many things, such as their being twice as likely to suffer from depression and anxiety disorders compared to men,’ Adreanna Mendrek, associate professor at the University of Montreal’s Department of Psychiatry.

  • Body changes.

    Girls generally go through the physical changes that come with puberty about two years before boys. Their changing bodies can trigger all sorts of feelings as they adjust to their new normal. Sometimes these will be positive, such as pride, excitement, anticipation, curiosity – and sometimes they won’t be. 

And finally …

The only criteria for depression is being human. Depression is blind and unbiased and it doesn’t care who it targets – it really can happen to anybody. For some reason, probably plenty of reasons, depression seems to flourish during adolescence. At a time when the world starts opening up to our teens, for too many of them, the world shuts down. Our teens deserve to thrive, and feel the ‘aliveness’ that comes with the learning and discovery that comes with the adventure towards adulthood. By being aware of the risk factors for depression, we can work to limit those risks for our teens as much as we can, and support their courageous, strong reach into the world.

[irp posts=”3915″ name=”Depression in Teens: The Warning Signs and How to Help Them Through”]

3 Comments

Cindy

We should remember that if everybody said nothing…there really would be chaos.

“All it takes for Evil to flourish…is for One Good Person to say Nothing”…Anon

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Cindy

Thanks so much for this valuable information. Sometimes, we notice that something is bothering a family member, but don’t like to ‘butt in’ and bring the subject up…for fear of being a ‘sticky beak’. I will simply print off and send in the mail.

Sort of a long-distance Sticky Beak.

Regards,
Cindy

Reply
Rose

This article is helpful for all parents with preteens as well as teens being cared for
We only need to realize that for a preteen or teen in Foster Care the above sections are intensified greatly by the “Forced” or needed living situations that they are in.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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