Helping Kids Understand Happiness During Hard Times: Situational Vs. Clinical Depression
By Tyler Jacobson
There’s having a hard day or two, and then there is depression. I have a teenage son who has had a difficult time adjusting to changes in his life, such as when he didn’t make the high school basketball team after playing basketball all through middle school. As the parent on the outside, this seems like less of a problem; no more late practices or missed homework sounded good to me even while I sympathized with his feelings of defeat. But when he didn’t bounce back in a week and continued to be listless, I was really concerned.
We took a long hike, just my son and I, and we tried to sort out what the root of the problem was. My son couldn’t really pinpoint what was eating at him, just that he was “really down” and “hated everything”.
Teen Depression Should Never Be Dismissed As Normal Moody Teen Behavior
Now, a lot of us parents could brush that off as normal teenager behavior. But teen depression is a real thing and should be treated as such. Doctors refer to it as situational depression or adjustment disorder and the name kind of says it all. The symptoms of depression, both situational and clinical, are the same which should tell us parents how serious teen depression can be. These symptoms are:
- Sad, blank, or anxious mood
- Hopelessness or feelings of pessimism
- Irritability or irritation in general
- Feelings of lack of worth, helplessness, or guilt
- Lack of interest or joy in usual activities
- General fatigue or lower energy levels
- Feeling restless or having trouble sitting still
- Hard time concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
- Struggles with falling asleep, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
- Appetite and/or weight changes either up or down
- Ideation of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
- Physical pains such as cramps, pains/aches, digestive problems, or headaches without a clear reason why the pain is happening. Also doesn’t ease with treatment
For my son, not playing basketball was just the tip of the iceberg. By treating his unhappiness seriously, I was able to understand what the real problem was for my son. Most of his friends had made the basketball team and were shutting him out of their activities. He was afraid to start high school and have no friends to be within a large school where he would be the bottom of the social order.
There Was A Deeper, Underlying Issue Behind His Frustration
In that context, I realized my son was feeling isolated, depressed and bullied, which should be a red flag for any parent aware of the warning signs for teen suicide. With that in my thoughts, I started to help my son find new ways to enjoy himself and build friendships. Some of the things we did that you could try with your teen are:
- Get Active – Going from a high activity level to nothing definitely wasn’t helping my son feel any better. We talked it over and he decided to join the cross country team which had open enrollment. As a way to get him to practice over the summer, I signed us up for our local Fourth of July 5k. Having something both to look forward to and the regular exercise has done a lot to boost his mood.
- Track Mood – Since most teens, mine being no exception, are glued to their phones, we decided that he should track his mood on a daily basis. There are a ton of apps out there to help track moods and make notes if needed. By seeing a visual graph of his overall week, my son was able to see that not everything was the worst it could be and that he could get through a rough day.
- Mind and Body – I met some resistance from my son on this point, but we cut out the afterschool soda and chips habit for the both of us. I made the point that the sugary soda and simple carbs were causing a sharp spike in his mood and then a worse drop, then he countered that it was doing the same to me! To avoid being a hypocritical parent, I agreed and we have cut it out and we both feel better for it.
Another option that my son didn’t need but other teens might is therapy. Depending on what they are struggling with, you may want to look into support groups or one-on-one therapy for your child. Depending on the severity, your child may need medication to get through a hard adjustment, like the death of a loved one.
It was a delicate balance between taking my son’s situational depression seriously but not making him feel like he could never be happy again. He is starting to have more good days than bad, and it just makes me grateful I took it seriously early on.