Teenage or adolescent years are ones of transition from childhood to adulthood. All sorts of changes occur over several years, including at hormonal, neurological, psychological and social levels. As is more generally true, change can prove stressful. For teenagers, development involves a degree of emotional sensitivity that makes them vulnerable to a variety of experiences and life events. This may instigate a range of reactions and responses, including, in some instances, depression.
As with everyone else, social media have added another dimension to adolescent life, bringing opportunities for an array of both positive and negative experiences. The latter often contribute to the onset of teenage depression. Peer pressure, anxieties about image, concerns about sexuality and identity all crowd in. Online bullying is a serious issue for many during this phase of life.
Teenagers are beginning the separation from parents, further developing their own identity in the process. They are caught between dependence and independence; between the known and the unknown; between direction by others to self-direction. It is not always a comfortable place to be and while exciting, sometimes also proves frightening and demoralising, often as a result of how others react.
Young people approaching adulthood may retreat from family and friends as a way of coping with life’s stressors. This may include increasing their reliance on substances or online activity. Various forms of acting out in what is often termed rebellious behaviour, may be exhibited. Such behaviour can naturally be a worry to parents, especially when it clearly carries risks of harm. However, their anxious and even angry reactions, often as a result of feelings of loss of control, may end up driving teenagers further into themselves and close down effective communication with the family.
The degree of a teenage depression will exist on a continuum from mild to severe. At one end it will likely consist simply of low mood, lethargy and social withdrawal while at the other, chronic isolation, self-harming or even suicidal behaviour, such as substance abuse or cutting, may become apparent.
Sometimes adolescents are treated as if they are some kind of threatening alien beings, which of course only adds to their alienation. Like anyone else they would like to be recognised, heard, accepted and understood. They need to be given time and space and support, which may include rationally applied boundaries. It may well be that a teenager’s depression serves as a signal that all is not well within the family. As they are still very much members of the family home, family therapy may be the best option to start with because it shifts attention from exclusive focus on the teenager and his/her depression (the “problem”) to the health and wellbeing of the family as a whole and to its other members individually. Individual therapy for the teenager may nonetheless also be necessary.