Teen Girls and Depression: What Moms Can Do
Have you ever wondered if your daughter was depressed? If you have, you’re not alone.
A large new study recently came out in the journal Translational Psychiatry reveals that 13.6 percent of boys and a staggering 36.1 percent of girls have been or are depressed. That’s one out of three teenage girls!
Is there anything parents can do about this new alarming trend?
First, you need to understand depression is not just biological. You can have a biological vulnerability for depression and not be depressed. However, when you combine a biological vulnerability with environmental influences (lots of stress) there is a much greater risk for depression.
Parents can dial down the depression by monitoring environmental factors.
According to the Washington Post interview with Joshua Breslau, a senior researcher in the division of health for RAND and lead author of the study, “Among the standard questions asked are ones about insomnia, irritability, and feelings of guilt or worthlessness that researchers used to “diagnose” survey participants with depression using diagnostic criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Through the survey, they were able to capture a broader group of children than those who have a formal diagnosis and who may be in treatment.”
Let’s explore insomnia, irritability, and feelings of guilt or worthlessness and how that interfaces with the culture of teenage girls.
It’s hard for a teenage girl to get enough sleep. You tell your daughter it’s time for bed but she says she needs to study for her history test. This may pose a dilemma. You may feel you have to choose between your daughter’s getting a good night’s sleep or passing her test, and most often sleep loses. This is because many of our teens have schedules packed with afterschool activities. This causes their homework and social life to be pushed back into the late-night hours which has produced a culture of sleep-deprived teens.
Sleep deprivation has many negative consequences. First, it decreases serotonin, one of the “feel-good” chemicals in the brain, and increases the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn increases mood volatility. This leads to mood swings, irritability, and depression that create over-the-top reactions to situations. James E. Gangwisch and his colleagues from Columbia University, College of Physicians and Surgeons, Department of Psychiatry, found that teenagers who routinely went to bed after midnight were 24 percent more likely to be depressed than those who got to sleep by 10 P.M. or earlier. They also found that teenagers who regularly sleep five or fewer hours are 71 percent more likely to report depression.
What parents can do
- Convince your daughter to calm down before bedtime. Unplug from electronics– including cell phones, video games, TV, and chatting on the computer–an hour before bed.
- Monitor her cell phone and computer use. Take her phone and laptop at night so she won’t be tempted to chat with her friends, especially if she is a younger teen.
- Let her sleep in on the weekend to catch up on her rest.
- Educate your daughter about sleep deprivation and the benefits of sleep.
Our girls are under more pressure than ever before. Girls feel the pressure to look the right way and have the right jeans, shoes, dress, underwear, hair products, phone, computer, and nail polish. They feel the pressure to have the right grades, friends, and boyfriend, and to get into the right college.
Parents feel this pressure too and unknowingly pass their pressure onto their daughter’s saying things like. “Don’t you care about your grades? Do you even want to go to college?”
Teenage girls are trying to survive in a harsh competitive culture. The standards are set so high, no girl can achieve them, for example, what girl can measure up to the photo-shopped models in all the magazines. This is a breeding ground for shame.
Another reason there is so much pressure is because of overbooked schedules. Girls don’t have any downtime, which is why they often stay up way too late in order to catch up with their friends.
All this adds up to a great deal of stress and no time to relax and rest. The result; stressed out girls are irritable.
What parents can do
- Have your home environment be a sanctuary instead of a pressure cooker.
- Create space for downtime and relaxation. Dr. Michael Rich of Harvard Medical School said that “downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body.” Downtime is a pressure-free zone and is very important for your teen’s well being.
- Allow time for play. This could be anything from hanging out with the dog, making cookies, or watching light-hearted YouTube videos with your daughter. Dr. Stuart Brown is the founder of the National Institute of Play and the author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul states that “The opposite of play is not working, it’s depression.”
3. Feelings of worthlessness
The world of teens is far from stable and many times is harsh and judgmental. Most of your daughter’s energy is directed towards finding her BFF, boyfriend, and her group. She also needs a place to belong, in or out of school–whether it is as part of a soccer team or band, tennis club or art lessons–a place where she feels like she belongs. This sense of belonging is essential to your daughter’s well-being.
This feeling of belonging is challenging for adults and can be vicious for teenage girls. Girls can be mean, critical, self-centered, flaky, judgmental, and unforgiving. Being ridiculed by her peers will damage your daughter’s self-esteem. School can feel like a battle zone.
When your daughter doesn’t have a safe place to belong she can experience feelings of worthlessness because she has been rejected by her best friend, excluded by her “friends” on the weekend, or has been a target of cyberbullying or slut-shaming.
What parents can do
- Show unconditional love and belonging at home. She needs to know that she is worthy of love and belonging. She learns this by experiencing your acceptance and unconditional love.
- Listen and validate her feelings. Help her name the difficult emotions. Find out what really is going on. Be compassionate. She needs to feel you understand and care.
- Facilitate teenage “play dates.” This is especially true of shy or introverted girls, who need to connect to one or a few girls before they are comfortable with a large group. One solution to this is to invite one of the girls over to the house.
- Find positive places for your daughter to belong. This can happen by helping your daughter find activities that will develop her skill. This is an easy way to find like-minded teens.
Normal teenage girls are going to experience more difficult feelings like sadness, rejection, disappointment, or shame. These feelings can fluctuate throughout the day, but they can also experience positive feelings. The sad feelings don’t interfere with their activities, schoolwork, or friendships. This is not depression. Depression persists over a long period of time and interferes with their friends, and functioning at home and school.
If you are concerned your daughter is depressed and may harm herself, get professional help. Even if you see signs that she is depressed, like she is falling behind in school, not able to sleep, and is isolating from her friends contact a mental health professional and get her support.