How Do I Know My Teen is Depressed?

How Do I Know My Teen is Depressed?

Teenagers are grieving right now. Dealing with high school, college applications, body changes and maturation, peer pressure, identity and sexual exploration, forming friendships, gaining independence from their parents, first jobs, social media and cyberbullying – adolescents have a lot on their plate. Now let’s add in a unique twist of events that completely changed this year’s challenges – COVID, school closures, online learning, isolation from friends and being “stuck” at home with their parents. It’s no wonder that depression, and other mental health issues, in teens is on the rise.

Managing mental health in teenagers is critical in how they respond to challenges as adults. A massive 80% of mental health issues have ‘childhood or adolescent’ onset. This means that nearly all mental health challenges known to us develop early in life. The seeds of mental illness are planted at this age and grow substantially if left untreated. This statistic is crucial in wake up call, and makes us realize that many teens do not have the tools to cope with what they are facing during adolescents. Leaving mental health untreated at this fragile age can pose a risk for adulthood, where there are many more bumps in the road. Early intervention is key here!

There isn’t enough support out there for our teens. The global pandemic has affected everybody and yet there are distinct populations that have suffered more than others – our teens are right there at the top of the list. They have been involuntarily and forcibly physical isolated from their friends, isolated at home with parents – who they are intent from separating from, and having to adapt to online learning. They feel the lack of privacy, miss their friends and feel hopeless about the future.

So how do you know if your teen is experiencing mental health problems? There are so many “flags” or markers that could help you identify if they are struggling. A few key signs to look for are changes in sleep, mood, appetite and behaviour.


A prominent paediatrician and sleep expert, from Johns Hopkins, Laura Sterni, M.D., states that teens need 9 to 9 ½ hours of sleep each night. When we look back at newborns and infants, the amount of sleep they need is long and deep. They need a sleep routine and naps to grow and perform their best. The same goes for teens! Adolescents are growing, fast, their brains require a lot more rest than adults do. It is a “second wave” of cognitive growth and maturation of the brain.

A lot of research has been carried out on teens’ sleep patterns, and it all points to the fact that teens need more sleep! School starts early and their energy levels may not match the cognitive performance needed to succeed at school. Sleep is key in ensuring your teen is happy, well-rested and better able to manage their emotions. If you notice your child sleeping less, waking up in the middle of the night, having trouble falling asleep or waking up, these are signals that their minds and bodies are just not getting enough rest. Work on figuring out what the problem is, developing good sleep hygiene. Consider talking to a therapist if the problem doesn’t subside.

Sleep affects our mood, appetite and behaviour. That’s why it is first on this list!


Teens can be “moody” – this is relatively common as the body changes and hormones are released. We have all been there! However, there are changes in mood that can represent a deeper issue. As you know your child better than anyone else, noticing changes in their daily mood can be the first factor in determining underlying mental health issues. If your teen seems more irritable, sad, reclusive, angry, tearful or quiet, it’s an indicator that things may not be okay. Tracking their moods, offering emotional support and allowing privacy can really help. Teens want to be heard! Allow them to talk about their fears of the future, pressures from school or just a general lethargy from everything that’s going on. The key is to listen first, solve after.

If you find your teen not responding to your concerns, maybe they need to talk to someone else. As friends, peers and other authority figures take the place of parents in teen-hood, this may be a natural solution. Encourage your teen that you are there to listen and support, but also that they could talk a trusted friend, other family member and even a licensed professional. This gives them options and freedom to choose an outlet that they are comfortable with.


Food, nutrition and water are all important factors in optimal teen health. We are all aware that healthy eating leads to a healthy mood, and an overall healthy life. But, what do you do when your teen doesn’t want to eat, skips meals, overeats, and eats junk food? What we eat does affect how we feel.

Teenagers require a lot of nutrition. Their bodies are growing and are very active. Cognitive changes, brain maturation and bone growth all require proper nutrition. Food and water intake must be regularly attended to. Teens tend to skip meals, want to eat fast food, become more conscious about their weight and body. Irregularities in food intake can seriously affect their mood, sleep and cognitive performance.

Teenagers are prone to disturbed eating, restrictive eating (especially in girls) and a recent “cancel culture” of certain food groups. Teenage girls are more likely to experience changes in eating preferences due to body image issues. Teenage boys are more exposed to athletic pressures, eating more to be “muscular” and have a larger appetite. These opposite sides of the spectrum can lead to disordered eating in both girls and boys, and can have a serious effect on their mental health, if not addressed.

Developing health eating habits at home for your teen to model is key. Your teen will eat what is at home. During the pandemic, we have all noticed a change in our eating habits and it is no different for teens. Ensure your adolescent has an array of healthy snacks to choose from. Giving them options is important! Creating a “snack tray” would be a fun way to keep them engaged in eating healthy – nuts, fruits, veggie dips, crackers, cheese & granola bars are great ways to keep them excited about food.

Another great way to get your teen involved in eating healthy is cooking with them. Allow your teen to go through recipes, pick their favourites, shop for ingredients and help you cook in the kitchen. Also, teaching them how to cook is an essential skill they will have for life. Healthy habits formed at home will stick with them well into adulthood!


The greatest indicator of your teen’s mental health is behaviour. Changes in behaviour are normal at this developmental stage of life. However, negative changes in your teen can indicate a concern. If you feel your teen is disengaged, unhappy, getting into trouble, acting erratic, isolating themselves in their room, lashing out or engaging in high-risk activities, you may want to access help. As a parent, we are prone to jumping to worry and imagining the worst-case-scenario. We must remember though, that this is a unique time.

Due to COVID-19, children and teens are missing out on many milestones of their life – graduations, celebrations, prom, sporting events, concerts and summer time, are all events that teens really look forward to. As some teens prepare to enter their university careers during a global pandemic, it’s so important to talk to your teen about the changes happening. Emotional support during this time is vital in establishing safety and ensuring your teen can talk to you.

Now is a great time to invest time into your teenager’s routines. Help them establish goals, set up schedules and carve out activities that they can benefit from. Discovering new hobbies, sports and games would be a great way to re-direct negative behaviours. Organize socially distanced parties. Make movies, music, songs or write poetry. Let your child think outside the box and remember this unique time – pandemics happen every 100 years or so! I’m sure your teen would love to hear that.

It’s a difficult time to be a teen – adolescence is hard enough to cope with. Today, teens are also dealing with COVID-19 changes that have abruptly changed their lives. As being in between childhood and adulthood is challenging, your teen is the future generation of our world. Nurturing them with love, care and attention is as important as allowing them to feel independent, be involved in decision-making and carving out interests. If you continue to struggle with your teen, give us a call and schedule a free consult with one of our therapists. We would love to help them navigate this challenging time!

Rehaan Shafi is a Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying) at The Story Isn’t Over.

Schedule a free consultation at our Brampton or Bolton office.


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