It’s tough enough being a teenager without having to deal with the stress of seasonal depression and the struggles it can cause. The social pressures of high school, the pressure of choosing what you will do after high school, pressure from family to work or otherwise help contribute to the household – all of these things can make your teenage years a struggle.
Seasonal Depression (also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD) is a mood disorder that can occur any time the seasons change. Some scientists theorize that the change in the amount of sunlight can cause SAD. Others suggest that people with SAD already have clinical depression that just has not been diagnosed.
In either case, depression is a real illness that requires treatment. The basic problem is in the brain chemistry. The levels of serotonin (the mood-lifting hormone) in the brain become critically low. The best, safest way to compensate for that chemical imbalance is to provide the brain with medication that regulates and improves the absorption of serotonin. Without treatment, depression or seasonal depression can lead to suicide.
Seasonal Depression can get so bad that a teen cannot function. He or she will lose interest in things, sleep quite a bit, be lethargic, stay away from people, have trouble concentrating (which can lead to falling grades), be overly anxious or irritable, or crave carbs so badly that they put on a lot of weight in a short amount of time.
Here we will discuss 7 potential warning signs that your teen could have seasonal depression.
Loss of Interest in Favorite Things
When someone is depressed, it is difficult for him or her to enjoy anything. Things that have always brought happiness or activities your teen would never miss become absent in daily life. With the lack of serotonin in the brain, your teen is physically incapable of experiencing joy.
This loss of interest can happen over time or all at once. A depressive episode often comes with no warning. A gradual loss of interest over weeks and months may simply be because your teen is changing their focus – and that’s not a big deal. But, a sudden loss of interest, within days or just a week or two, is highly suggestive of a depressive episode.
The reason teens lose interest is because they simply lose the ability to be happy. Everything around them becomes gray, dull, and dark. They may physically lose the ability to find anything to be happy about because their brains simply aren’t absorbing serotonin.
At the height of a depressive episode, a teen will go through an internal battle of negative self-talk. Thoughts like “Why do I even bother?” or “Wouldn’t everyone be better off without me?” or “What’s the point of doing anything because I won’t do it well.” To someone who has never experienced depression, this may sound completely foreign – and it often doesn’t make sense.
It is also important to realize that negative self-talk is NOT the same thing as hearing voices, like patients with schizophrenia often report. Negative self-talk is an internal conversation your teen is having with him or herself.
Some teens with seasonal depression or clinical depression are the most popular, most athletic, most intelligent, and most well-loved teens you could imagine meeting. If your teen is usually on top of the world and suddenly doesn’t want to play sports, go to school events, or hand with friends, this is a major warning sign.
Dealing with negative self-talk is exhausting. When this happens in the midst of seasonal depression, your teen is essentially fighting with him or herself, both mentally and physically.
Imagine, if you will, that you live with someone who is constantly nagging you and battering you emotionally with negative words. Would you want to listen to that? Of course, not. Would you want to get away from that? Of course, you would.
Now, imagine that person is yourself. Your mind is constantly bombarding you with negativity and telling you that you don’t matter. Where are you supposed to go? Most people or teens with seasonal depression will go to sleep and stay asleep as long as possible. Other than suicide, sleep is the only healthy escape from the constant, negative badgering.
When teens cannot get enough sleep, or their schedules are too demanding, they can often start self-medicating with alcohol.
Alcohol influences the brain’s biochemistry. The ethanol in alcohol interferes with the neurotransmitters in the brain, causing altered behavior. Many teens who self-medicate use alcohol because it makes them feel numb – and numb is better than sad and depressed.
It is not unusual for your once well-behaved teen to start sneaking alcohol and going to crazy parties when seasonal depression sets in. It is their opportunity to quiet the negative self-talk and escape from being themselves. They can spend a few hours being drunk with their friends and having a great time because they don’t have to think about their depression.
But, this always backfires. Why? Alcohol is a depressant. It eventually inhibits your brain activity and slows down your central nervous system. This will lead to more sleepiness, an overall feeling of malaise, and the inability to concentrate on anything.
If you suspect your teen is drinking to combat seasonal depression, you must intervene immediately. Continued use of alcohol will only increase the symptoms of depression and could lead your teen to fall prey to alcohol toxicity, which can be fatal. If you catch it early, you can get your teen into a doctor for treatment recommendations.
When you are a teen, there is nothing worse than feeling awful about yourself – hating yourself. Seasonal depression can lead you to withdraw from the people around you to spare them from having to experience your existence.
“That’s silly,” you may think. But, it is all too real to your teen. If you are fighting depression, you feel worthless, like you’re nothing. You think you shouldn’t be allowed to be around “normal” people. You engage in the most self-destructive negative self-talk:
- “I’m garbage.”
- “What were they thinking when they had me?”
- “Nobody should have to see me.”
- “I just ruin everyone’s good time.”
- “People don’t really like me; they just humor me.”
- “No one wants to be around me.”
- “Everybody wants me to die, so I should just do it.”
If these quotes seem melodramatic, they’re not. These are actual things that people with depression think when they start isolating themselves. The depression has honestly convinced them that they are doing the world a favor by staying in isolation. And believe it or not, it actually makes them feel better to be alone. Depression is a twisted, unending barrage of illogical conclusions and actions.
If your teen has started isolating, don’t overwhelm him or her with your presence – it won’t help. That will put your teen on the defensive, making matters worse. Gently invite your child back to the kitchen table, back to watching television with the family, back to helping cook dinner. It’s the little steps that will show your teen you care without overwhelming him or her.
Your student was all A’s. Then seasonal depression struck, and your teen’s grades start slipping. At first, you think it’s a crush on someone at school, or they had a fight with their best friend. You casually ask, but it’s neither of those things. You watch your teen doing homework and realize he or she is making mistake after mistake, or your teen is gazing off in the distance at nothing.
Difficulty concentrating is one of the first signs of seasonal depression. It happens because your teen is fighting all the negative self-talk every minute of every day. It’s hard to focus on geometry proofs when your self-talk is telling you, “You’re so stupid! There’s no way you are gonna get this!”
Whether there is truth in that terrible thought or not (and most likely, it’s not true), your teen is listening and believing. Anyone would become frustrated if every time he or she tried to move forward or learn something new, a voice inside tramped down on his or her heart and made him or her feel worthless.
The negative self-talk can become so persistent that it affects everything around your teen. Let’s say that you were at work, trying desperately to focus on the task at hand, and someone is singing, loudly and badly, in the background. Would you get frustrated quickly? Would you lose the ability to concentrate? Of course, you would. It’s the same thing for your teen with seasonal depression. This obnoxious conversation is constantly going on in the background, making it nearly impossible to complete even the simplest tasks or homework.
Increased Anxiousness or Irritability
This frustration with the internal conversation can manifest as extreme anxiousness or irritability, or both. If your teen is struggling with seasonal depression, he or she has probably spent days or weeks or even months trying to figure out a way around the negative self-talk – a way to make it stop.
We’re all familiar with the visual of a man trying to make a decision with the devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. This is a fair representation of how your teen is experiencing depression – except there is no angel. Instead, they have a black, hairy demon right on top of their head, drumming their brains with its fists, breaking through the defenses your teen is trying to set up.
As soon as one protective wall goes up, the demon of depression smashes it down. When your teen builds a fort, the demon kicks down the doors. If your teen sets guards on duty, the demon blows them over with one breath. Your teen can set up a moat of fire, but the demon will giggle, catch the fire in its hands, and send the flames into your child’s heart.
Anyone fighting something like that will be anxious and irritated. There is a sense that “no matter what I do, this isn’t going to stop!” Your teen is trying to win a tiny battle in a bigger war – and he or she isn’t making any headway.
Given this mindset, it’s not unusual for a teen with seasonal depression to snap at a parent or sibling, be grouchy with a teacher, or even scream at a best friend. If the depression is especially intense, panic attacks can happen. Your teen will have shortness of breath, sweating, clammy palms, and a racing heartbeat. They can feel dizzy or nauseous. If you see the signs of a panic attack, seek medical attention immediately.
Besides alcohol, another way kids with depression will self-medicate is with food – particularly, sweets and other carbs. Why is that? When carbohydrates (whether sugar or complex) reach the brain, they act as a mood lifter. Think about when you give a toddler too much candy – they are happy for hours!
When a teen is struggling with depression, they will soon figure out that carbs are a great pick-me-up. They will feel happier and more positive the more they indulge in sweets. While this may not be as dangerous as self-medicating with alcohol, your teen can still do damage to the body. If a teen with depression becomes addicted to sweets, he or she can gain dangerous amounts of weight in a very short time.
If you notice your teen gaining weight quickly, start monitoring what you feed your family. Remove the sweets from the home and only cook healthy meals. Don’t say anything. Don’t comment on your teen’s weight. Don’t ask them about their eating habits. Don’t comment on having to buy new clothes. These kinds of comments will only lead to them eating more sweets when they aren’t at home.
Once you are able to get your teen help for the seasonal depression, you can then address the addiction with a doctor or therapist.
Teens with seasonal depression need help. Keeping an eye out for the warning signs is the first step to offering them healing. Don’t try to do it on your own. Even if you are a physician, your kid will see you as mom or dad – not a doctor. Make sure you get your teen to a specialist who works with kids. Once your child is in treatment, your only job is to give them the best medicine of all: unconditional love.
Looking for a specialist to help your teenaged child handle their seasonal depression? Reach out to Beachside Teen Treatment Center to see how our facility can help your child!