What Depression Can Look Like In Teenagers

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban, LMFT, IMH-E
Updated April 24, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Depression can affect the mental health of teens and adults alike. However, it may be a bit more difficult to recognize depression in teens, since some of the symptoms overlap with normal adolescent behaviors that can be a result of the many changes experienced during this time of life. Becoming more withdrawn or not enjoying things that they used to, for example, could be symptoms of a mental illness or perfectly normal parts of growing up. Read on to learn about how to tell if your teen’s behaviors may indicate something more than normal growing pains, like depression—which is a serious mental illness that can be managed with treatment.

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Symptoms of depression in teenagers

Diagnosing mental health conditions like depression is something a qualified mental health professional should do. Ideally, the mental health care professional should specialize in child and adolescent treatment. However, becoming familiar with the signs of depression is a good idea for parents and guardians of teens.

That way, you can help teens seek the treatment they may need if you notice that they’re exhibiting some of the symptoms below. 

Remember that according to the latest diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM), a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) requires several of these symptoms to persist for at least two weeks and that the first two are experienced daily or almost daily. That’s why it may be helpful for parents to keep track of when they first start noticing these behaviors in their teens, so they can provide this information to a mental health professional. Symptoms of clinical depression in teenagers may include:

  • Feeling sad and hopeless, or experiencing feelings of numbness and emptiness
  • A loss of pleasure in activities previously enjoyed
  • Increased irritability and anger
  • Increased anxiety
  • Isolating oneself from friends and family
  • Low self-esteem, extreme sensitivity to perceived criticism
  • Low energy and a lack of motivation to follow through on daily tasks
  • Changes in sleep patterns (either sleeping too much or too little)
  • Changes in eating patterns (either eating more or less than usual)
  • Problems with concentration and focus
  • Random aches and pains throughout the body that have no other explanation
  • Problems with performance or behavior in school (dropping grades, getting into fights or trouble, etc.)
  • Substance abuse
  • Suicidal thoughts; self-harm behaviors like cutting or burning

Above all else, suicide prevention is key in this situation. If you believe that your teen may be at risk of harming themselves or experiencing thoughts of suicide, please seek out help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached by dialing 988, and it’s available 24/7.

Some of these depression symptoms may also be present in other mental health conditions like bipolar disorder or anxiety disorder. This is why a diagnosis from a health professional who specializes in mental disorders is essential if you are concerned that your teen may be experiencing major depression. Friends and family members are not qualified to tell the difference between depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental health conditions. 

The symptoms of teen depression explain why you can likely see some parents of teens not noticing symptoms but classifying them as normal signs of growing up. For example, it’s often perfectly natural for teens to need more food and sleep over time. Teens may also start moving away from certain activities that they feel are childish or begin asking for more freedom, none of which are cause for alarm in and of themselves. Paying attention to how long these symptoms last and whether your teen seems to be experiencing several of them can help you decide whether it’s wise to seek help for their mental health. 


Risk factors

According to the American Psychiatric Association, some risk factors for teen depression include a family history of depression, early childhood trauma, or the home environment in which they’re raised. Overall, a child with one or more families with mental illness is more likely to have depression. Many factors can be at play, however, including the following:

  • Hormones
  • Brain chemistry
  • Low self-esteem feelings that lead to patterns of negative thinking and learned helplessness
  • Having other mental health conditions or physical health problems 
  • Circumstances in the teen’s life, like being gay, lesbian, transgender, or bisexual in an unsupportive environment

What to do if you notice signs of teen depression

Keeping an eye out for signs of depression in teenagers or any other mental illnesses is the first step. If you notice some, reaching out for help is typically the next. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) encourages parents to schedule an appointment with their teen’s primary care physician first in this case. Although the symptoms of depression do not always need an underlying cause, the National Institute of Mental Health advises that some depressive episodes may be triggered by a physical health condition that a doctor can find and identify. 

How to treat depression in teenagers? If depression symptoms are present and there are no contributing medical problems, the next step is to meet with a mental health professional. They can evaluate your child’s mental health status and decide on a treatment plan if necessary. This may include psychotherapy, medication, or both if your child is diagnosed with adolescent depression

A specialist in adolescent psychiatry may be necessary if your doctor decides that medication is the best path forward. A mental health professional can also provide a safe space for your teenager to express and work through difficult emotions and can offer strategies for managing any symptoms of a mental illness that they may be experiencing. Your child’s doctor may be able to give you a recommendation for a nearby counselor, or you may be able to find one in your area on your own. If you cannot locate the right resources for your teenager near you or believe they’d feel more comfortable with a format that’s not in-person, you may want to consider online counseling platforms.

With an online therapy platform like TeenCounseling, for example, your child can get matched with a licensed therapist whom they can meet with via phone, video call, and/or online chat once they have your consent. Some find the virtual therapy format more comfortable, and one study even found that participants felt it was easier to form a personal connection with their provider virtually than in person. Since research suggests that both in-person and online therapy offer similar benefits, you and your teen are free to choose the most comfortable method. Trained mental health professionals can also provide treatment methods like cognitive behavioral therapy in person or online to help your teen improve any symptoms they’re experiencing. 

Getty/Xavier Lorenzo
Does your teen need mental health support?

Preventing depression in teens

In therapy, your teens will likely learn how to cope with symptoms of adolescent depression and how to avoid stressors that can trigger or worsen them. You can support your teens by encouraging them to cultivate healthy habits that can support their mental health. For example, you can try:

  • Making sure that teens get enough sleep on a regular basis
  • Reducing stress where possible, which may include helping them edit their schedule
  • Providing them with healthy meal options
  • Encouraging teens to take part in more activities that make them happy
  • Practicing nonjudgmental, supportive listening so they know they can come to you with their problems
  • Encouraging teens to get regular exercise, perhaps by joining a sports team or a gym
  • Having teens spend more time with supportive friends and family
  • Challenging unrealistic or distorted thoughts or beliefs they may tell themselves

You can support your teens on their mental health journey in these ways, but it’s important to remember that they’ll also have to put in some effort themselves. Working through their feelings and challenging negative thoughts are key healing processes that take place mainly internally. Connecting teens with the right mental health resources and encouraging them when they tell their progress with you are the main tasks you can try, in addition to helping teens build the healthy habits listed here.


Depression can occur in teens as well as adults. Knowing the signs and symptoms of this mental health disorder can help you support your teens in getting the treatment they need.
Depression is treatable, and you're not alone
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