Q. We have been very worried about our 15-year-old son. He no longer talks to us; he grunts. His grades have fallen and he spends more time in his room. We think this is just a phase, but we are worried. Are we over-reacting to teenage angst?
A. Because your son’s grades have declined, you are right to show concern. One of the first symptoms of adolescent depression is deteriorating academic performance. Families should always take notice when an adolescent has a sudden change in behavior and displays signs of depression.
Adolescents have school and social demands that can lead to depression and withdrawal. They may have disagreements with other students and their teachers; they may feel excessive expectations to excel; they may experience their first romantic feelings; and they may be overwhelmed by a rapidly changing world. Your son may not yet have the coping skills needed to deal with these challenges, and he may begin to shut out family and friends. Since he has become sullen and spends more time in his room, you should also question his use of drugs or alcohol. Adolescents who are depressed often turn to substances to dull their feelings or to alleviate their emotional pain.
As parents, you should examine the family dynamic. Have there been changes in the family situation? Has he had difficulty with a sibling? Has something happened at home to make your son feel unworthy? Parental rejection can be caused by unintentionally negative comments of parents or family members. Years later, one young man still remembers that after he baked a cake his father said, “You’ll make a good wife someday.” Although some comments are intended as teasing, adolescents take our words very seriously. Comments made in anger can often cause lasting emotional damage.
Make an effort to talk with your son about your concerns. What you are describing is most likely teenage angst, but it is better to be safe than sorry. If his behavior does not improve or worsens, it is important that you consult a mental health professional.
Q. Every fall when the days get shorter, I get much more depressed. What can I do to get through the coming fall and winter?
Approximately 15 percent of depressed people report that their depression levels increase during the fall, grow worse during the winter, and recede as spring approaches. This calendar-linked pattern of depression is referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. As darkness comes earlier, you may be feeling apathetic, sleeping more, having difficulty with concentration, and becoming more irritable and withdrawn.
It’s very important that you take extra care of your physical and emotional health during these months. First, practice good sleep habits, eat healthy foods, and exercise as often as possible. Avoid alcohol and recreational drugs since they can worsen your depression. Second, get involved in pleasurable activities during shorter days. Don’t stay home, overeat, or watch too much television. You will only become more depressed.
Many people with SAD have been helped by “light therapy” which uses a special lamp that mimics sunlight. If you think this could help, find out more about choosing a light box by referring to a reputable website such www.mayoclinic.com. If you get a light box, take about 30 minutes in the early morning to sit a couple of feet away from it. This will mimic sunrise, and has been a very effective tool in alleviating depressive symptoms. Before starting this therapy, be certain that you are not taking a medication that makes you sensitive to light and have an eye examination by your ophthalmologist.
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Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology. She teaches psychology at Southeast Arkansas College and maintains a limited private practice in Pine Bluff. If you have questions pertaining to mental health, e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org. The questions will not be answered personally, but could appear in a future column. There will be no identifying information and all e-mails remain confidential.