Teen Depression and Loneliness

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

By Karin Hoggard, LMHC, CMHS
Center for Human Services      

While it would be very difficult to write a generic article about teen depression because there are too many factors that impact children's development, including minority status (ethnic, sexual, religious, cultural, immigration, socio-economic, etc.), family history, culture, religion, values, parenting styles, available resources, etc.,  it is a proven fact that most of us experience some form of depression throughout our lifespan.

The way we work through that depression can sometimes result in greater resiliency, self-understanding and compassion for ourselves and others, as long as we are able to make a healthy connection with others in some way.

Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to the effects of depression for many reasons, precisely because the ‘making healthy connection’ component of this piece of recovery is something that most teenagers living in the United States right now struggle with on a fairly regular basis.

There are many reasons for this.  Recent research findings on adolescent brain development and socio-cultural factors help us appreciate that adolescence roughly begins by age 10 and lasts through age 25.

Taking this knowledge into account is important in understanding teen depression because it can help us to recognize that teenage anxiety is not just about moving successfully through high school and developing into responsible adults.

It also includes grieving and making sense of multiple developmental transitions during a time in which a search for meaning and life purpose in the world has never before been more difficult to create.

For example, on some level, many teens feel a sense of loss at leaving elementary school, middle school, high school and college (if they are privileged enough to attend college).  They also experience great uncertainty about their future. Many teens don’t seem to experience anxiety as much as they experience a continuation of unresolved grief that preceded adolescence and becomes drastically worse during ages 10-25 because they weren’t able to effectively recover what was lost or never received in childhood.

When unresolved, this grief can turn into depression. What allows most teens to successfully move through these periods of grief and actually find moments of joy and peace so that they can create meaningful and responsible lives, is a secure relationship with at least one trusted adult that teen can confide in and “talk about life” with. This mentoring relationship is different from the relationships formed with peers in that it needs to be with an emotionally stronger and wiser person in order to promote and model security and safety in relationships. Without this model for responsible and safe relationships, teens are frequently unsuccessful at reaching important developmental milestones that allow them to move through adolescence, feeling competent that they can create and maintain meaningful and safe relationships with others. 

We are all biologically wired to attach to others. Our intense need to make deep connections with others is a strong motivator for teens to replace adult attachment figures with their peers, when they perceive no available or interested and understanding adults to attach to.  Traditionally, parents in American culture have been encouraged to give their teens space in the interest of promoting their independence and development into young adults. However, it is now generally becoming more accepted that adolescents still need a secure base to support their exploration and discovery, in a similar way to toddlers. 

Without having at least one meaningful relationship with a secure and dependable adult during adolescence, teens are at great risk for experiencing isolation, loneliness and despair as a result of feeling rejected, abandoned and sometimes incapable of connecting with others.

Many teens move through adolescence appearing anything but lonely, when they often in fact feel deeply misunderstood, disconnected and rejected by those they spend the most time with. These teens may appear popular and identify their friends as the most important people in their lives.  They may also appear socially awkward; the key factor in identifying adolescent risk factors for depression is who an adolescent identifies as their most important relationship(s). When teens only identify peers as their most trusting relationships or only themselves, it should be a red flag that they are at risk for depression. Teens who have meaningful and secure relationships with adults can and do still get depressed, but the presence of a safe, mentoring relationship increases their security and overall resiliency so they can move through adolescence with a sense of integrity and control over their lives.

How can we help? Seek to make attachment with adolescents, regardless of their apparent intent to keep peers as their primary attachment figures.

Teens need caring adults to attach to, just as young children do.  Be respectful of their desire and need to connect with their peers, but don’t allow them to completely push you away; often when teens appear to alienate their parents and teachers, it’s a strategy for developing independence based only on trial and error.

Ironically, although the process of separating from parents and becoming more independent is an imperative part of growing up, if adults allow teens to completely disconnect (as teens often give the impression they would like to do), teens usually end up feeling isolated and misunderstood.

They need attachment figures to give them some space, but they also need them to stay close and unconditionally send the message ‘I’ll watch while you explore AND I’ll be here for you when you return’. Any adult can increase an adolescent’s protective factors and overall resiliency by reaching out and making a connection: neighbors, relatives, teachers, family friends, daycare staff, youth workers, church and civic leaders, psychotherapists, counselors (in addition to guardians and parents) are all potential mentoring relationships that can provide protective factors to decrease the potential for adolescent depression. 


Ross Vaughn May 2, 2014 at 5:27 AM  

Teen depression that is serious can lead to additional problems. Teens that are depressed may be more likely to do drugs or drink alcohol. Teens in this situation are less likely to do well in school. They may retreat so much so into themselves that they may become ill or may attempt to harm themselves.

One of the scariest things about teen depression is how well they can hide it. Many teens will face bouts of depression, but those that have too many will hide it well from you. If this is the case, you may never realize how much trouble they are in until it is too later. Parenting a teen means; making it your business to know. I found more on this page here http://improvemyselfbetter.com/teen-depression-the-scary-truth/

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