We know depression is prevalent among adults, and most of us have experienced depression at some point in our adult lives––but did you know it can affect children as well, especially pre-teen and teenage girls? Sadly, 1.9 million (or 3.2%) of children between 3 and 17 years old have diagnosed depression.
We have to ask ourselves, why? But before we dig into that, we need to understand that depression can manifest differently in children than it does in adults. In fact, anger or acting out can be a telltale sign of depression in kids, but it can be easy to miss since you may think it signals a behavior problem or other issues.
So, what are the ways depression can show up in your teen girls, why might they be depressed, and what can we do as parents and caregivers to help them?
Depression Symptoms in Young Girls
There are signs of depression that are common in both adults and girls, including:
Feeling sad, hopeless, or irritable
Not enjoying things, they once did
Changes in eating or sleeping habits
Lower cognitive function
Feelings of worthlessness / low self-esteem
Potentially self-harming behavior
These are the more obvious signs, but the difference between child and adult depression can reveal itself as anger or acting out. Your daughter may get into trouble at school or refuse to listen to you at home. She may constantly be throwing tantrums or getting into fights with her siblings and friends. Before jumping to any conclusions that she has a behavior disorder, try talking to her and seeing if she is also experiencing any of the symptoms of depression listed above. You may be surprised to learn that she is actually depressed.
Why Your Daughter May Be Experiencing Depression
No parent wants to find out that their child is depressed, but we can’t truly help them get better unless we do the investigative work––even if that work points the arrow back to us. While there are numerous factors that can cause your daughter to become depressed, such as hormonal changes, lost of a love one, big changes in the family, moving, changing schools, problems with friends at school, low self-esteem, academic problems, romantic relationships…etc., oftentimes we as parents can actually be the biggest contributing factor if we are struggling with depression or mental health issues ourselves.
We can unintentionally project our own struggles onto our kids; we are not islands, and our kids are going to pick up on our mental state. This is not a reason to blame or shame ourselves, but rather to take a look at what is going on in our own worlds to identify the root cause of our own depression, and then we can understand how that is impacting our kids.
So, what can we do to heal both our kids and ourselves? Here are some tools we can use:
Acknowledge and Validate Feelings
The worst thing you can do with your feelings is to pretend they don’t exist. Maybe you have been doing this with your own feelings and are surprised to find that your child is depressed because you don’t show any emotion around them. But perhaps that is precisely the problem––your suppression of your emotions inadvertently teaches your kids that it’s not okay to express their feelings, and therefore they may numb and suppress their own negative feelings.
Since suppressing emotions doesn’t make them go away, instead they get stored up inside until the person is eventually crushed by the weight of them, which causes immense isolation and depression. Realize that it’s okay and actually healthy to express emotions in appropriate ways around your daughter, and that will encourage her to be open about her feelings with you. If she feels it is safe to talk to you about her emotions, she will be much less likely to internalize them and become depressed.
Care for Yourself and Your Daughter
Not only do we need to acknowledge and validate our and our children’s feelings, but we also need to show care and comfort––for ourselves and for them. If we don’t take care of ourselves and learn how to process through our negative emotions, we will not be able to help our teen girls do so either. This is where it’s important to learn good self-care strategies, which can be anything from daily exercise to reading a good book on the front porch.
Talking with a therapist can also help get to the root of deep-seated emotional issues. Learn what restores and rejuvenates you when you are experiencing hard emotions, and make sure you fill your own cup before you try to fill your child’s. Once your cup is full, you will be much more equipped to help your daughter from a place of love and abundance.
Just as you need your people to help you through tough times, your kids do too. Social problems can be a big cause of depression in children, especially during the teenage years. It is critical for your daughter to find supportive and uplifting friends at every stage of adolescence.
This can be difficult since you can’t control who your kids hang out with at school, but you can set a good example for them of what healthy relationships look like and encourage them to find those relationships. You can also help them get involved with after-school activities where they can engage with other people who share the same interests as them or sign them up for a youth group through your church.
While you don’t have control, you do have influence, so use that influence wisely and your children will thrive.
Last but certainly not least, you need to make sure your kids are safe. Depression in children can be a warning sign that there is an area of their life where they do not feel safe––whether at school, with friends, or even under your own roof. They may not physically be in danger (or they may be, if they are being physically bullied at school or somewhere else), but if they don’t feel safe, then you need to take that seriously.
Talk to your child and simply ask them if there is anywhere that they don’t feel safe emotionally or physically. Their response may take you by surprise––they may not feel safe around you! If this is the case, don’t be hard on yourself, but rather figure out what you can do to be better for your kids using the strategies above. If there are genuine safety issues at school or somewhere else, make sure to take action right away by bringing it up with the school staff.
If depression is not addressed early on, it can lead your daughter to having thoughts of not wanting to live, self-harming or risky behaviors. These are also symptoms of depression and are not to be taken lightly. In these cases, seek immediate professional support for your daughter to keep her safe, receive support, and learn healthy coping skills. You can always call the National Suicidal Hot Line 24/7 at 800-273-8255 to seek guidance on how to help your daughter and or your daughter to talk to a counselor.
Whatever you do, don’t write your child off. Listen carefully to what she is saying (or not saying), and show her that you truly care and want to help her. Just making her feel heard can make a huge difference.
Although it can be distressing to find out your child is depressed, know that you are not alone, and don’t blame yourself immediately. Have conversations with her to dig into what is going on. Once she feels supported by you, you are on the right track. But if you feel like you can’t help her on your own, you can set her up with a therapist who specializes in counseling adolescent girls. Children are resilient and can absolutely get better, quicker than you may think.