Teens are famous for their moodiness. Periods of feeling sad are part of a normal adolescence. Teenagers can develop serious depression, at which point you do need to enlist outside professional help.
How can you tell if this is necessary? Signs of depression include: if they are withdrawing, grades dropping, doing little, sleeping a lot, if they seem just plain unhappy. But really, if you are worried and your worry does not go away, seek help. It is best to err on the side of caution. And always consult a professional if there is any talk about their harming themselves.
But what about the day-to-day down moods that seem to be part of being an adolescent?
Jason’s father to his son: “Jason, you seem a little down. Is there something bothering you?”
“No, nothing. I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
But Jason’s father was not reassured: “I don’t know, he seems a little more withdrawn. He rarely comes out of his room. He’s been more quiet, and you hardly ever see him laugh.”
“My parents worry about me too much. Like I said to my dad, I’m fine. I don’t know what they want from me – being some kind of goofy little kid. That’s not me. I feel fine. I do.”
These periods of moodiness are especially perplexing to parents because, unlike with their child’s pre-teen times of sadness, parents often feel powerless to help.
A hallmark of adolescence is that the great majority of teens – in some form – develop an allergy to their parents. The same love and closeness that they only so recently seemed to crave, they now scorn. The same closeness they used to treasure, they now feel compromises them, makes them feel like a baby.
So they cut the cord. They become much more dependent on the world around them for their day-to-day sense of well-being. Can they keep their head above water in the big world out there? So much energy is required to go out each day, put on a good face, do all that you’re supposed to do. It can be very hard. And so they may temporarily pull into themselves. Become depressed.
There are many stressors in daily life. But what makes it so much harder for teens compared to when they were younger is that they have to do it mainly without your help. Life wears on them in a way that is very different than when they were little. They have to deal with it a great deal more on their own.
What’s a parent to do? First, be aware that it is not a bad thing if they sometimes withdraw into their shell. It is good to have a place where you can feel comfortable, screen out the stresses of the world. You do want them to have that place.
“Yeah, nobody understands how the only time, the only way I can get any peace of mind, get to feel any real fun in my life, is when I am playing Death Star 3.”
But you do still have a role.
“Hello, can I come in?”
“I’m just saying ‘hello’ and I know nothing’s bothering you except me, but I’m here to say if something were bothering you – which I know it’s not – I’m available.”
You do want to reach out to them. Don’t take their less than overwhelming enthusiasm personally. Your message to them should be: “I know you’re allergic to me, but that’s okay. I just want you to know I’m here and I’m not going anywhere.”
Don’t try too hard to reassure them. “I know you’re upset, but it really isn’t as bad as it seems. You have so much going for you. You’re such a great kid. You have no reason to be so sad.”
They often don’t like this because at that moment they do feel sad, and they feel you don’t get it. They don’t actually believe your reassurances. They are no longer a little kid whom you can just cheer up. They feel – at that moment – their life does suck. What they want is to know that you hear and accept their sadness.
As parents, we would like to make it all better. But often the best that we can do is accept that they are sad, know that things will get better – they almost always do – and try to be a nice parent. Which it turns out is exactly what they want.
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books.