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Adolescents are arguably the most stereotyped age group in our society. From Kevin the Teenager to shop signs that ask for no more than three teenagers in shops at any one time, there is a view of adolescents as a different breed: uncommunicative and unmotivated. 

But the stereotypes are misleading. Not all teenagers are surly or depressive.

Estimates vary from country to country, but worldwide, about 4-5% of mid-to-late teens are thought to experience clinical depression every year.

Adolescent brains and bodies are going through changes which affect behaviour. The changes to hormones have long been understood, but what happens to brain development has been less clear until recently. Studies now suggest that there is a gradual development of brain areas related to planning, inhibition of inappropriate behaviour and understanding other points of view. But the brain system that recognises and responds to rewards develops in a less linear manner. The upshot is that teenagers’ reward systems tend to be hyper-responsive to social rewards (from peers) while their ability to problem-solve and plan remains under-developed.

This explains some of the difficulty of adolescence, which is also a time of unfamiliar social situations and pressures. But it certainly doesn't mean that depression is inevitable.

If you start to notice that your adolescent child is often low, tearful, having difficulties eating and sleeping and is avoiding doing things they used to, including going to school, then it's worth trying to get a sense of what's going on. Most people agree that depression, like other mental health problems, can be understood using a stress-vulnerability model: some individuals are genetically more likely to experience depression, but stress caused by situations increase the chances. Some stresses, such as family unhappiness or bereavement, are similar for adults and teens; some, like exam stress, are specific to younger people.

If you're concerned:

  • Tell your child you've noticed their behaviour has changed and that you're worried. Ask if you can help. Emphasise they haven't done anything wrong and it's not their fault.
  • If they don't want to talk to you, see if a family member or friend can help.
  • Get other points of view; speak to their class tutor at school to see if they've noticed anything.     
  •  If they do feel low, your GP is the first port of call. If your GP thinks it's appropriate, NICE guidelines recommend talking therapies. Anti-depressants are an option if talking therapies don't help.

The Young Minds website is a great resource for understanding low mood.