I work with a lot of teenagers and preteens in my practice. I few years ago, I worked with an 11th grade girl who pushed my buttons on a weekly basis. She was rude, offensive, and completely apathetic. I did not know if I would be able to help her. Somewhere along the course of seeing her I attended a training class on working with teenagers and the professor said something that really struck a chord with me, “Anger is Sad’s bodyguard”. I thought about what he said all weekend. The following week, I decided to test it out. I began making observations about how I thought she might be feeling regarding certain tough events in her life and something miraculous happened. She broke down in tears.
What is tricky is that most of the time depressed teens look like other depressed people: sad, crying, withdrawn, sleeping too much or too little, not enjoying activities they used to enjoy, thoughts of suicide, etc. Other times, it can look like what I was seeing in the girl that I mentioned.
If I were a parent of a teenager, I would be confused, irritated, and even a little shocked. “You mean my obnoxious teen, who’d rather spend the night in his bedroom than hang out with the family could actually be depressed? But isn’t this normal? Don’t other teens act like this?”
And you are totally right! Teenagers are as easy as nailing jello to a tree. A lot of this behavior is normal. What is not normal is if the oppositional behavior comes with more intense and frequently concerning choices. Now her grades are slipping, but that’s alright she can do extra work and pull them up. Then they fall even more than before. She’s no longer hanging out with her normal group of friends. That not a huge deal, interests change and she can meet new people. Well now you catch your daughter drinking and smoking pot with these new friends. You ask her to do some yard work and she protests as usual, but now you notice she has scratches on her wrists. But aren’t these cuts a little deeper than one would get from twigs and leaves? She seems to be losing weight and you rarely see her eating anymore and now she has screaming matches with you over dinner. I get that teens spend a lot of time in their room but hasn’t this gotten a little excessive? You monitor her social media posts and notice that they seem to be getting darker and you notice that she googled painless ways to kill yourself.
If you throw all of this together, you have more than just your normal teen oppositional behaviors, you now have grades slipping, loss of interest in activities that she used to enjoy, a change in friends, drug use, possible eating disorder and cutting, isolation, angry outbursts, and suicidal ideation. You have more than just your teenager saying “you don’t understand!” and “I hate you!”.
Believe me, I know it can be hard to look at the whole picture, especially since these things tend to come in stages. If you notice that your teen is struggling more than just being a bratty kid you fantasize about sending to live with your distant relatives, it doesn’t hurt to take them to get checked out. Have a counselor or a therapist give you a second opinion. Be your child’s biggest advocate and get them the help they may need.