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

Reply
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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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