How to help a teen through holiday depression - Part 1

December 10, 2018 Providence Health Team

12% of teens have experienced a period of depression in their lives.

There are a variety of factors that contribute to teen depression.

If you see warning signs, intervene early by talking to your teen and seeking professional assistance.

The holidays are often filled with good cheer and celebratory spirits. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for everyone. Alongside the festive parties, gift exchanges and goodies, some of us are also experiencing increased anxiety, seasonal blues and even major depressive episodes. Adults aren’t the only ones among us affected; today’s teens are increasingly susceptible to depression.

In an informative video, Kathryn Anderson, LMHC, a family therapist at Providence Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital in Spokane, WA, reveals 5 major warning signs of teen depression:

  • Persistent irritability – beyond your teen’s normal moodiness
  • Withdrawing – pulling away from people and activities they care about
  • Abrupt shifts in friends – disengaging from old friends, creating new groups of friends outside of normal interests
  • Irregular sleep patterns – sleeping all the time or staying up all night
  • Too much screen time – when a teen is so plugged in that they are shutting out everything but the virtual world

We spoke with Anderson about the prevalence of teen depression, its causes, and what you can do to help. Here is part one of our two-part interview.

How prevalent is teen depression?

From adolescents age 12-17, there’s an estimated 3.1 million children in the US who have had at least one episode of major depression. That rounds out to about 12%.

In an study published in Pediatrics, the researchers found:

The rate of adolescents who’ve had a major depressive episode within the last year has risen from 8.7% in 2005 to 11.3% in 2014.

The availability of mental health treatment has not grown at the same rate as the increase in adolescent depression, meaning there is a growing number of young people with untreated depression.”

How is an episode of major depression defined?

What we find with depression, with both adolescents and adults, is that it tends to come in waves. Most types of depression are not fixed; they tend to ebb and flow. We call that period  when the wave of depression rises a depressive episode.

A major depressive episode is a period of two weeks or more in which you experience a certain number of symptoms of major depression like overwhelming sadness, tiredness, or feelings of worthlessness.

What is contributing to teen depression these days?

It tends to be much like any medical illness or mental illness — there are a variety of factors that contribute. Some are environmental, some are genetic, some are circumstantial, and sometimes we just don’t know why some teens get depressed.

We are definitely in a society right now that is dealing with fragmentation between people. There is a lot of animosity in our political climate. There are a lot of things that we’re being told to be afraid of. That climate of divisiveness can contribute to teen’s moods and to their sense of safety and stability in the world.

I also think that social media plays a role in teen’s moods. On the one hand, social media increases our access to our peers. In the adolescent years, it is very healthy and important for a teenager to start practicing becoming independent and becoming an adult. This is when we tend to reach for our friends and want to be around our friends more than our parents — and social media enables us to do that, which in one sense is a good thing.

However, social media blocks us from breaks: breaks from connecting with our friends, breaks from practicing that independence and those relationships separate from our family of origin. So, we don’t get as many opportunities to come back, recharge, get our cups filled from our families who love us and care for us, make sense of what we are trying to do in our friendships, and then the next day go back out there and try it again. The relentlessness can impact mood in a negative way.

What role does academic pressure play?

Teens are under tremendous pressure to achieve academically and be involved in activities. A teen’s schedules can get packed; and the more a parent’s expectations rise in terms of getting ready for college, the more pressure the teen feels to be constantly on the move, doing something, achieving something, completing something.

This is where it is possible for there to be too much of a good thing. Extracurriculars are wonderful; achieving academically and growing and strengthening our brain is fantastic; but what I think we are missing is how important various types of rest and refueling are — how crucial that is for learning and for growth. Our current system doesn’t put enough value on recharging as is necessary for these young brains, hearts and minds.

Is “helicopter parenting” a contributing factor?

As parents, we tend to get deeply involved in our children’s safety and their achievements. While the intentions are good, I think that can increase pressure on a kid and on a parent.

There is so much pressure to fit into a certain box for a teenager, or for a parent to make sure nothing bad ever happens.  That leaves less room to learn how to use literal and metaphorical muscles — like how to tolerate adversity — if people who love you are constantly running interference for you.

Our society pressures parents to play that role, which isn’t right for every family: there can be value in allowing kids to have unstructured time to play and explore their worlds. I think there’s often a lot of pressure on the whole family system to be perfect, and this can increase risk for teenage depression.

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Check back for the second part of this two-part article. Subscribe to To Your Health and you’ll never miss a health update.

If your teen is prone to severe depression, you may want to have the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255). If you want to find a health care provider to talk with about a mental or emotional health issue, visit:

AK: Providence Medical Group Behavioral Health Services

CA: Providence Psychiatric Services

MT: Providence Behavioral Health

OR: Providence Behavioral Health

WA: Providence Psychology, Spokane; Providence Medical Group, Olympia Psychiatry; Swedish Behavioral Health

Read more of our insights on mental health and well-being.

Recommended for you:

How to recognize and help teens with depression

If you’re not on your game, it could be depression

Treating depression: It’s never too late for a new beginning

Bringing suicide out of the darkness: Raising awareness, removing stigma

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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How to help a teen through holiday depression - Part 2
How to help a teen through holiday depression - Part 2

The second half of our interview with Providence family therapist Kathryn Anderson on teen depression.

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