Puberty is a time in every child’s life when they begin to experience changes in their appearance and behavior. Along with these developmental changes, recent research suggests early puberty may be associated with depression. According to the study, when children experience puberty earlier (or later) than their peers – making them feel different – they have increased anxiety, more instances of a negative self-image and greater occurrences of stress and depression. Those whose development is more closely aligned with their friends and classmates do not as often demonstrate signs of depression
While early onset puberty can increase the risk of developing adolescent depression, particularly for girls (estrogen can contribute toward depression), depression can affect teens regardless. As many as one in five teenagers suffer from adolescent depression, which can take the form of any in a variety of mental and emotional health conditions.
Physical, emotional and social changes can all contribute to an increased risk of depression in adolescents. Certain events, such as going back to or starting a new school, can also affect your child’s risk.
Risk factors include:
- Academic pressure. Starting as early as elementary school, many children encounter stress and performance pressure.
- Overscheduling. From busy school schedules to extra-curricular commitments and family engagements, many children don’t get enough “down” time to let their brains relax.
- Bullying. Bullying can lead to severe self-esteem issues, depression and suicide.
- Family. Children experiencing changes in their family situations – divorce, death, relocation to a new town – often experience stress.
- Physiological. Some studies indicate that those suffering from depression may have too much or too little of certain brain chemicals or their family has a history of depression (putting them at greater risk).
Look for Warning Signs
Adolescent depression can be difficult to diagnose because all teens are, to a certain extent, moody. However, the following may indicate something more serious – especially if it represents a significant change in your child’s behavior.
- Sleeping habits such as excessive sleeping to bouts with insomnia.
- Eating habits that may indicate disorders like compulsive eating or rapid weight loss.
- Physical complaints like headaches, stomachaches, other aches and pains.
- Trouble concentrating.
- Poor school performance, including being late, skipping school or getting bad grades.
- Preoccupation with death and dying.
- Getting in trouble with parents or authorities, such as the police.
- Sadness and anxiety.
- Use of alcohol or drugs.
- Promiscuous sexual activity.
- Withdrawal from friends.
- Loss of excitement for former interests.
- Complaints of boredom.
What You Should Know – and Do
Depression isn’t anyone’s fault. If your child appears to be suffering from adolescent depression, support and treatment resources are available.
Whether or not your child ultimately needs professional help, you can support your child in the following ways:
- Read. Learn about depression. Know as much about the disease as possible. This will allow you to make sure they have the support and resources they need, wherever – and whenever – they need it.
- Talk. As children begin to become more independent, they often withdraw from conversation with their parents. Keep the line of communication open – talk with them often, even if it’s just asking about their day. Engage them in activities, like helping you with dinner or going for a walk.
- Support. Empower your children to come to you whenever they may have negative feelings and to never feel ashamed. The more depression is out in the open, the better you can support – and get support – for your child.
- Encourage. Seeking treatment is a positive step in addressing the disease. Whether it’s therapy, medication or lifestyle changes, you need to be supportive and their advocate for treatment.
- Listen. Find a caring therapist who listens to your child. Go with them to appointments and help them with medications. Patience and support are needed on their journey to recovery.
Emotional health can also benefit from good lifestyle habits, such as:
- Sleep. Make sure your child gets enough sleep and follows a regular bedtime routine.
- Exercise. Regular exercise makes you feel good. The brain produces endorphins, which lifts your mood. Find a sport or activity for your child to get involved in.
- Diet. Make sure your child eats a balanced diet. Too many children eat too many processed foods that are high in fat and sugar, making them feel slugglish.
Children, especially those going through puberty, will have times when they feel blue or sad, and that’s okay. However, if this becomes constant and interferes with school, family life, friendships or group activities, it could be a sign of depression and worth seeking additional support.
Learn more about the emotional health resources from Northwestern Medicine available for your family in Chicago, the northern suburbs and the western suburbs.