5 warning signs your child or teen may be depressed and what to do about it

Written by Paul Asay
Published on February 05, 2021

For nearly a year, the United States has been in the throes of a pandemic that has turned our lives upside down. 

Masks. Zoom calls. Our hands rubbed raw from too much sanitizer. 

But the coronavirus isn’t the only health crisis we’re dealing with. 

Depression, which has risen in tandem with the spread of COVID, was already an epidemic before most of us had even heard of coronavirus. 

And while depression has been on the rise for years among almost every age group, it’s been growing even more rapidly among adolescents. Between 2007 and 2017, the number of teenagers who had experienced depression rose by a staggering 59% percent, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center

And just like COVID, depression can be fatal: suicide is the second leading cause of death for those between the ages of ten and twenty-four. 

Stress and sorrow

It’s little wonder that depression finds such fertile soil among American youth. It’s tough to grow up today. 

In addition to all the traditional challenges that come with youth—school, parents, rapidly changing bodies and brains—kids and teens must navigate social media and the myriad of pressures that come with it. 

Bullying doesn’t just end when the school bell rings but can go on 24/7. One ill-advised text or picture can destroy a young person’s social standing—and at an age when that standing feels like the most important thing in the world. 

But let’s be honest: Stress and sorrow are nothing new. And while some might believe that Christians would be immune to the pull of depression—after all, we’ve been given the good news of Jesus—we all sometimes suffer from doubt and despair, and God’s people always have. 

Doubt and despair in Scripture

Page through the Bible and you’ll find that many of God’s most faithful servants suffered from times of doubt and despair. 

Lot is practically a poster boy for misery. 

Elijah ran into the desert and asked God to take away his life. 

Read the psalms and you’ll find some that sound like textbook examples of depression. Take Psalm 102, for instance: “For my days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace. My heart is struck down like grass and has withered; I forget to eat my bread . . . I am like a desert owl of the wilderness, like an owl of the waste places; I lie awake; I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop (Psalm 102:3–4, 6–7 ESV). 

For parents, the prospect of their child or teen being depressed can be terrifying. And it can be really difficult to see. As weird as this may sound, many kids and teens try to protect their parents from the unseemly details of their lives. 

Your child may say they’re just fine when, in reality, they’re in crisis. But there are some signs that parents can watch for. And while some of these signs can be difficult to differentiate from plain old adolescence, string a few of them together and the picture becomes clearer. 

5 signs of depression in children or teenagers

Here are five signs of depression—many of which echo the psalm above—that moms and dads should keep a lookout for. 

1. A lack of energy or being tired all the time 

“My heart is struck down like grass and has withered” (Psalm 102:4a).

Yes, kids—especially teens—can be tired often, the result of unusual sleep patterns and, frankly, a growing, changing body. But a lack of energy is also a huge indicator of depression. 

Sometimes, depressed teens can feel like they’re unable to do much of anything. And to an outside observer, teens might sometimes look as if they’re operating in slow motion, to the point that even their speech and body movements are slower. 

2. Changes in appetite 

“I forget to eat my bread” (Psalm 102:4b). 

Often, depression can be accompanied by a loss of desire to do much of anything, and that includes eating. A decreased appetite or weight loss can be a sign that your child is depressed. 

But it can swing the other way, too, with a depressed son or daughter overeating as a way to assuage their feelings. 

3. Using alcohol and/or drugs 

“I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop” (Psalm 102:7b). 

Teens struggling with anxiety or depression can often feel worthless or hopeless and alone, like the psalmist’s “lonely sparrow on the housetop,” deeply vulnerable and separated from the life they once enjoyed. They often try to lessen or numb those feelings through self-medication—many times through the use and abuse of alcohol and drugs. 

This proves particularly self-destructive. 

While alcohol can numb the feelings of worthlessness and certain drugs can make users feel happier for a while, they both do a number on a teen’s central nervous system, which actually makes depression worse. And that’s aside from the addictive issues that come with alcohol and drugs. 

If you’re seeing signs of alcohol or drug abuse in your child or teen, get help right away! Sometimes depression and dependency can be effectively addressed together. 

4. Unexplained aches and pains 

“My bones burn like a furnace” (Psalm 102:3b). 

This is one of depression’s biggest calling cards among children: headaches that just won’t go away, stomachaches that return again and again, or body aches that send a child to the school nurse over and over. 

These aches and pains are very real, but they might point to a mental or emotional, rather than physical, source. 

5. Lack of attention to hygiene or appearance 

“For my days pass away like smoke” (Psalm 102:3a). 

When you’re depressed, brushing your teeth or taking a shower can feel as overwhelming as a quick hike up Mount Fuji. Sometimes it can feel pointless to wash yourself or take care to look presentable. Even the pain associated with the depression, which we just talked about, can impact hygiene. Sometimes depressed kids and teens just don’t feel like they can physically deal with a toothbrush or washcloth. 

There are other possible signs, too: irritability, loss of interest in activities, social withdrawal, self-harm, and on and on. As parents, if you see some or all of these signs crop up, take action. 

Don’t wait 

Ask questions, even if they feel intrusive or nosy. 

Take your child to a psychologist or counselor. 

Don’t simply trust that things will get better on their own. 

Remind your child that they’re not alone. Even if they feel as though they’re unlovable, God loves them—and you do too. 

Even if they feel hopeless, hope remains—as difficult as it can be to see. 

Many people who have done amazing things in the Lord’s service went through valleys of doubt and despair, and they eventually came out stronger for it. 

Live perfectly imperfect

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay is the author of two previous books (God on the Streets of Gotham and Burning Bush 2.0: How Pop Culture Replaced the Prophet) and has coauthored several more. He’s also partnered with Focus on the Family president Jim Daly on a pair of books.  He currently works in Focus on the Family’s Plugged In division, reviewing movies and television shows and analyzing culture from a Christian perspective for a monthly audience that exceeds one million readers. He also freelances extensively, writing regularly for the Aleteia and Patheos websites, and he’s been published by such outlets as Time, The Washington Post, and Christianity Today. Paul has also written for Christian Counseling Today, tackling subjects like cyberbullying and suicide. He’s won several awards for his writing, both at Plugged In and as a secular religion reporter for The Gazette in Colorado Springs. Check out Paul’s upcoming book, Beauty in the Browns.

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