PAMF Health Blog

Be Well, Be Well Informed

A Parent’s Guide to Teen Depression

Posted on Dec 21, 2011 | 29 comments


Although being moody and irritable is often normal for teenagers, depression is not simply a side effect of growing up. Depression is a serious medical condition that affects approximately one in five teens before they reach adulthood and is the leading cause of teen suicide. Parents often feel concerned and unsure of what to do when they think their teen may be depressed.  Talking with your teens regularly, listening to what they have to say, and keeping up with their activities, go a long way to preventing and identifying any depression they may be experiencing. In this blog post, Meg Durbin, M.D., an Internal Medicine doctor and pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, offers some insights into depression, and answers parents’ commonly asked questions on teen depression and how to help.

I think my teenage son may be depressed. What should I do?

Try to make your teen comfortable by asking questions in a nonjudgmental way.  Keep an open mind while listening to what he has to say. Consider asking questions such as: “How are you doing? Are you feeling stressed? Have you been feeling sad or down most of the time?” Helping your teen identify and figure out how to cope with stress (whether academics or peer relationships) is an important part of growing up and an important responsibility for parents. Sharing how you cope with stress can be helpful, too. For example, you could say: “You know, when I feel stressed out, I find that taking a stroll helps to clear my head and calm me down. Why don’t we take a walk together?”

My two teenagers are very moody. How can I tell if they are depressed?

Don’t be afraid to ask your teen about moodiness or changes in behavior. In addition, look for the following signs and symptoms that can indicate teen depression:

  • Persistent mood changes, especially irritability or sadness
  • Feeling hopeless, helpless or worthless
  • Increased anger, fighting and self-destructive behavior
  • Loss of interest in normal activities
  • Withdrawal from friends
  • Increase or decrease in sleep or appetite
  • Excessive or uncontrollable crying
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Preoccupation with thoughts of death
  • Drop in academic performance

My 15-year-old daughter seems depressed. I’m concerned about what she might do to herself. What should I do?

If you are really concerned that your daughter may have serious depression, it’s OK to ask whether she has had thoughts of harming herself. Direct questioning about self harm does not push people over the edge and drive them to attempt suicide. In fact, bringing such a discussion into the open can be a relief to someone who harbors such thoughts but hasn’t yet sought help. At the same time, don’t feel like you have to assume the role of a suicide counselor or therapist: seek help if you are concerned about your daughter’s mood or behavior.

My teens are so stressed out about getting into college – getting high grades and doing lots of extracurricular activities to build their resumes. How can I help?

It’s very important to help our teens to strike a healthy balance: finding their passions and then working to achieve their goals, while nurturing their emotional needs and self esteem. Colleges and employers are looking for happy, healthy, confident people who have a genuine joy of learning and independent spirit. So, high school is a great time to explore different interests. Colleges neither expect nor want only students who take tons of AP classes and participate in a dozen sports and hobbies. Parents and doctors should encourage teens to set reasonable limits on their commitments: in academics, sports, and other activities. Teens, like everyone else, need unstructured time, to hang out by themselves and with friends. It’s a fact that we all function better when we have adequate rest and recreation.

In addition, it’s a sign of maturity when anyone – teen or adult – can acknowledge what they really want and need, and learn to cope with pressures that may come from others’ expectations. Teens especially need guidance about what others really do expect from them, since they may assume that their parents or teachers only accept them if they are ‘perfect.’ The message must be that we respect and support our teens: our goal is to ensure that we help teens discover who they are and want to be – and that includes a priority on staying emotionally healthy. Your school’s guidance counselors and teachers/mentors understand these issues very well, and, in addition to parents and health care professionals, can help teens strike a good balance that nurtures their love of learning and paths to reach their goals.

I think my son is depressed but he won’t talk to me. What should I do?

If you sense your son is holding back or is exhibiting signs of depression, please ask his regular doctor to screen him for depression and other emotional concerns.

  • If mild depression is uncovered, your son’s physician may be able to manage this directly through supportive counseling and frequent follow-up. Your son’s doctor may also refer him to a therapist and/or a psychiatrist.
  • If moderate depression is uncovered, your doctor may begin treatment (including supportive counseling and possibly medications) but will typically also refer your son to a psychiatrist and licensed therapist for counseling.
  • If severe depression is present, or if milder depression occurs with other concerns (such as attention deficit disorder, eating disorders or severe anxiety), your son should be referred promptly to a psychiatrist.
  • If you feel your son is in immediate danger, for example, he is threatening self harm or suicide – call a crisis service organization, such as EMQ Families First at 1-408-379-9085 or 1-877-41-CRISIS, or call 911. You can also take your teen to a local emergency room for evaluation if necessary. Child and adolescent psychiatrists are on duty at several local facilities in the Bay Area, including Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford in Palo Alto, Mills-Peninsula Medical Center in Burlingame, Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland, Fremont Hospital, Alta Bates Medical Center in Berkeley, and John Muir Behavioral Health Center in Concord.

Let me reassure you, though, that most teen depression is not life threatening and can be helped with relatively simple interventions by caring parents and your son’s doctor, along with support from therapists and psychiatrists when needed.

Meg Durbin, M.D., is a board-certified internist and pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, and contributed to this post.

Please note that we are unable to respond to personal medical questions through the comments feature below. For information about personalized health care, or if you need help in choosing a PAMF physician, please visit Becoming a PAMF Patient ( or call 1-888-398-5677. If you are a PAMF patient, you can email your doctor securely via our My Health Online program. Thank you


  1. I”m a teen who suffers with depression. I”ve talked to people, I”ve gotten help, the whole nine. I just want to say something that could help parents understand or even deal with the problem. This is coming from three teens who suffer from depression. 1) Don”t act like they don”t have a right to feel that way, or like they”re ungrateful. It makes us feel like we”re terrible people for feeling a way that we can”t help. 2) Don”t threaten to get a doctor. Often, they”ll think you don”t understand. Ask if they want professional help. Talking to a stranger doesn”t always help. Try having them talk with a close family friend at least. 3) Don”t use phrases like “typical teen”, “think you know everything”, “why would you”, and “What”s wrong with you”. It hurts. 4) Listen. You probably won”t understand but let them know that you care. If they feel misunderstood, changing suddenly and becoming the understanding parent can force them to put their guard up. They often won”t trust that. 5) give them a chance to defend themselves. 6) not every depressed teen cuts, does drugs, or has sex. Sometimes, we just feel worthless and as things build up, we break down. We can”t help it. Many of us keep it bottled inside and vent to friends or through hobbies. 7) Actions and words say a lot. Your teen”s taste in art or music may change. Pay attention to what they listen to, watch, an say. Often times, we turn to music we can relate to. The words really do mean something, even if you can”t hear it. And last, 8) depression isn”t constant. It”s not always there. It comes and goes. Remember that. I know this is long but I felt that it would help someone.Thank you for reading this.

    • Thank you, for that information it was very helpful dealing with my son, we can talk now without yelling at each other all you said is very true, You reminded me that our children have their own individualism, and as you are growing up we as parents tend to still think of our children just that children. we need to be just there and ready to listen just as if you were my friend, or brother or sister who came to me with a problem.
      thank you again for taking the time to be very helpful. I wish you the best.

      • Mary,
        Thank you for your comment and for visiting our blog. We’re glad you found this information helpful. Best wishes to you and your son.

    • Thank you for this tips for the parents out there. I am not a parent but I know a lot of them who think that they are always right. I am blessed that my parents taught us that they are not always right and only pick up the good things we see from them.

      You”re absolutely right about turning on to music. I myself do that when I am sad, depressed, anxious, etc.

      Thanks again!

    • You rock- thanks for saying it just like it is and what not to do.

      • Thanks for your comment, Tracie. Glad you liked the article! Best wishes and thank you for visiting our blog.

    • thank you!!! from a mom

      • You are welcome. We are glad you found this blog post useful. Thanks for visiting our blog and best wishes.

    • Thank-you so much for shedding some light for me. It has been so painful to watch my daughter go through this time, and I wasn’t quite sure how to handle it .Thank-YOU for giving me some tips on how to react to her episodes

      • Marlo,
        We’re glad to hear you found this article helpful. Thank you for your feedback and for visiting our blog. Best wishes to you and your daughter.

    • Bre,
      Thank you for your comment and taking the time to share your thoughts on our blog post. Best wishes!

    • Thank you for this information. I find it really helpful as a parent…

    • Thank you for the information. My 14 years old daughter suffering from depression. She also cuts herself. I’ll follow your advice. Hopefully things will change.

      • Eva,
        Thank you for your comment. We’re glad to hear you found information in this blog post useful. Best wishes to you and your family.

      • Hi Eva,
        We’re glad you found this information helpful. Thank you for visiting our blog and well wishes to you and your family.

    • The comment by Bre is very helpful to parents!! There is enough information on Teen depression but not many first-hand experiences from teens themselves. Thanks Bre for sharing your thoughts!

    • your words were comforting and helpful. I have a teenage daughter suffering from depression and its so hard to know what to do and say.

      • JTLP,
        We are glad to hear you found this article helpful. Thank you for your comment and best wishes to you and your daughter.

    • Hi Bre – Thank you for taking the time to write this. It has given me guidance and insight into my daughters feelings and what I can do to listen and be a better parent. Thank you again TLC xx

    • Thank you for sharing, I understand you and hope to help my granddaughter with your points.

    • Thank You, this helps me alot to understand my son more, He is depressed and I want to help him so much but don`t want to make it worse.

      • Melissa,
        We’re glad to hear you found this article helpful. Thank you for visiting our blog and best wishes to you and your family.

  2. Depression can manifest to anyone, even teenagers. Though mood changes can be very common during adolescent years, it is still best to know the symptoms if it is already an illness. An open communication network between parents and children can help in determining your child”s state and even in getting through the condition itself. Professional help can also be sought if matters are more serious than expected.

  3. Thanks for giving some insight on what teens go through and are thinking. I”m a stepmom of 3 girls, 16, 13 and 3. And they are all very angry and depressed and I had no idea what to do or where to start.

    • Kendra,
      Thank you for your feedback – we’re glad to hear you found this article helpful. Best wishes to you and your family.

  4. I have depression. My dad thinks that I have nothing and my family thinks the same thing too. My mom is the only one that believes me but my dad told my mom that I have nothing and I am just 14. What should I do?

    • Hi Maria,

      You can find information on teen depression on our Teen Health website at You can also look up other topics of teen health interest at We do not provide personalized medical advice on this community blog, however, in addition to talking with your parents about your situation, you can contact your health care provider with your questions or concerns now or at your next regularly scheduled visit. You may also wish to visit the teen health website of the National Institutes of Medicine to learn more about the topic of teen depression and mental health, and see information and resources

      Thank you for your visiting our blog and best wishes.

  5. I’m a grandparent of a 15 year old girl. She has pretty much been pretty shy most of her life. She loves cheerleadering, this is second year doing what she enjoys. Her grade average is B+- A. She dosen’t watch tv much. I believe that she is an over achiever. She cries or gets over upset when things aren’t right. Friends are important. Her father has always been absent from her life. Her behavior towards him has been, a matter a fact. She doesn’t talk too much with her mom or any family adults. I try to have conversation with her, but she has her head into her phone. I pick her from school twice a week from school, this I believe is a good time to open conversation with her.

    • Yvonne,
      Thank you for your comment and for visiting our blog. We hope you found the information, tips and resources in this article helpful, and best wishes to you and your family.

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