Your Health: Depression in Children
Teenage Depression: Are Girls at Greater Risk?
Girls are diagnosed more often with depression, but their depressive symptoms differ from those of boys.
By Kristen Stewart
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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You’re constantly reading headlines about teen depression — “Family Conflict Sparks Teen Depression;” “Self-Harm Common Among Teenagers” — and like many other parents, you can’t help but become worried sick about your own kids.
There’s reason for concern: One in every eight teenagers in the United States has depression. But before you panic, it’s important to understand the condition and how to recognize the signs.
Some teens may experience symptoms of depression that are similar to adults, such as having “the blues,” but often, teenage depression can have different characteristics. In addition, teenage girls often exhibit different symptoms than teenage boys.
“Teenage males tend to act out and get in trouble or may appear more irritable,” says Mike Dow, PsyD, an adolescent, parenting, and family expert based in Los Angeles, Calif. “Girls tend to become tearful, withdraw, display changes in sleeping and eating, and may turn to self-mutilation, eating disorders, or acting out sexually when they are not happy. These behaviors tend to get noticed more and explain why teen girls will be diagnosed with more mood disorders, whereas teen boys may tend to get diagnosed with more behavioral disorders.”
Here’s what you should know.
Teen Depression: Know the Signs
In addition to being irritable, teen girls who are depressed may gain or lose weight, struggle more than usual to concentrate on activities like schoolwork, and might seem tired and unmotivated. They may also withdraw from their friends and family, stop taking care of personal hygiene, suffer from low self-esteem, and project feelings of hopelessness for the future, among other things. Like adults with depression, teens may also experience changes in their sleep patterns.
While all depression symptoms are serious, behaviors that require immediate intervention include engaging in high-risk activities such as drug use and sex, self-mutilation like cutting and burning, discussing plans to hurt themselves, and attempting suicide.
Teen Depression: What Parents and Caregivers Can Do
The good news is that there are steps you can take to help teen girls head off depression. “It is important for parents to communicate openly with their daughters and encourage them to talk about their feelings,” says Joanna Ball, PhD, director of the Child-Adolescent Psychology Externship Training Program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
“Don’t allow them to get too isolated,” says Ball. “Also, parents who mistake depressive symptoms for ‘typical adolescent attitude’ may miss a great opportunity to get their daughters help early on." She advises that setting appropriate limits while avoiding intense criticism and encouraging open communication can go a long way toward reducing or preventing future depressive episodes.
If parents suspect their teen might be depressed, it’s important to talk to her in a supportive and non-attacking way. For example, saying something like, “You look really sad and I’m concerned about you” is much better than “What’s wrong with you?” Create opportunities for interactions by taking your daughter out to dinner or doing a favorite activity together.
Getting professional help is crucial as well, because depression can worsen if it is left untreated. Be sure to find a mental health professional — a social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist — who specializes in working with teens. And then be supportive of the treatment, whether it’s psychotherapy, medication, or both.
Fortunately, depression can be very treatable as long as the teen and her parents seek help.
Video: Depression Among Adolescent Girls
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