Q&A with a Therapist about Teen Depression

by Kathy Wyant and Sara Borgstede

In this article mental health counselor Kathy Wyant provides information for parents, youth workers, and others who work with teenagers, about teens and depression.

How do I know if my teen is depressed or just sad?

Depression in teenagers can be difficult to spot because it can manifest in a many ways other than sadness. If your teenager is battling depression you may notice some changes in thinking or behavior that you might not immediately associate with depression. A teen might show symptoms such as a lack of motivation, difficulty making decisions or difficulty concentrating. He might withdraw from family and friends by spending excessive time closed up in his room. Other symptoms could include sleeping a lot, a change in eating habits accompanied by weight loss or gain, irritability or anxiety. You might also see behaviors you haven’t seen before, like a drop in grades, getting in trouble, use of alcohol or drugs, or promiscuous behavior. A preoccupation with death or dying can also be a symptom of severe depression in teenagers.

Certainly if you think a child is severely depressed or showing any suicidal ideation you should get her help immediately. A child or teen showing signs of unusual withdrawing, talking or obsessing about death or any signs of self-harm should be taken very seriously and be seen by a professional as soon as possible.

However, unless it is serious, be careful rushing to judgment on thinking a child is depressed or anxious. Children are emotionally different than adults and what may seem unusual for us might be perfectly normal for them. Mood swings can be very normal for children and especially teens and adolescents.

Sometimes talking to your child first and trying to figure out what is going on and how you can help is going to be much more effective than rushing into trying to force him or her to talk to a therapist or see a school counselor.

A good resource is helpyourselfhelpothers.org, where you can find anonymous screenings for someone who you think might have a problem with depression or anxiety.

How do I find a therapist who is right for us?

I suggest you start by asking your family physician or pediatrician, other professionals or any friends that might be able to recommend someone that has a good reputation in the area.

You would also want to consider what the therapist specializes in treating. Some therapists focus mainly on marriage and family, individual therapy or drug and alcohol counseling. Be sure to check whether the counselor or agency will take your insurance, since counseling will become costly if you are out of network or paying out of pocket.

You shouldn’t be afraid to switch therapists if you feel like one isn’t working out after three or four sessions, but certainly give it more than one or two sessions as the first few sessions can often be awkward, especially if you and your teen haven’t been to a therapist before. It is important to find a therapist that works for your family. Sometimes it takes a few tries before you find someone who is a good fit for you.

My teen is sulky and angry. We tried going to therapy but he refused to participate. What should I do next?

You can’t make a teenager talk to you or a therapist. If he isn’t withdrawing or showing other signs indicating serious depression, or thoughts of suicide, my best advice would be to let him know that you are there and willing to listen if or when he wants to talk.

Make sure he has opportunities for continued support and that he is aware of them. Provide additional resources outside of your family – school counselor, friends, youth group, Sunday school class. Show continuous love and care, and watch for signs of depression and suicidal thoughts.

I’m worried that my teen might be using drugs. She hides in her room listening to music all the time, and I’ve noticed her eyes are blood-shot. When I ask her about it she yells at me to get out and respect her privacy.

If there is real reason for concern about drug use by a teenager, there is no such thing as privacy. She is a child, you are the parent. She is living in your house, under your care and you are the adult. You need to do whatever it takes to make sure she is safe.

Next steps would be dependent on the specific teen and situation. Speak with someone directly about your situation – perhaps seek counsel from a therapist, pastor, or other professional.

Cutting is a really popular activity in my daughter’s group of friends. My daughter hasn’t done it yet, but I’m afraid she might. Any advice?

If your daughter’s friends are cutting and she isn’t, I would see this as a great opportunity to have a discussion about it. Not a lecture, but a discussion. Do your homework first. Read about self harm, talk with other people and learn all you can.

Next, have a casual discussion with your daughter. Don’t judge, don’t criticize her friends, and don’t jump to conclusions. Ask her what she thinks about it, share your concerns, educate her, but most importantly, listen. Ask open-ended questions and let her share. You may find that your concerns are unfounded, or you may discover that you need to be paying more attention, but hopefully you will have opened a door for further discussion.


Always seek the help of your doctor or a trained mental health professional. This website is not giving nor is it a substitute for medical advice. If you feel you might harm yourself or others, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.

Help is always available at The National Suicide Prevention Line. By calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.

For more information and practical tools for depression, go to: http:/www.saraborgstede.com/the-hope-toolbox/

About the author

Kathy Wyant lives in the beautiful upstate of South Carolina. She has 13 and 16 year old sons and a daughter in her sophomore year of college. She is a mental health counselor and works for the local Solicitor’s Office with the Juvenile and Adult Drug Court programs. She describes this as “the best job ever”.
View more from Kathy

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