It’s often said that it can be quite difficult to spot the signs of depression in men. Well the same can be said of boys and adolescents. The signs are there but may be easily confused as some form of behavioral disorder, or just a phase that will pass, but there are things we can look and listen out for.
Young boys look to positive male role models in order to learn their place in the world. In environments that are emotionally impoverished or abusive the risk of depression is higher. However the signs that a boy is depressed can be quite different to those of an adult. Of course young boys haven’t developed physically or emotionally. Their experiences are limited and they generally haven’t acquired a vocabulary that allows them to explain how they feel. As a result it often falls on our observations of their behavior to give us the clues we need.
When we think of depressive symptoms it’s generally in terms of sadness, social withdrawal, guilt, apathy, negativity and a loss of interest in things previously considered important. Diet may change and sleep may also become disrupted. Young boys can certainly display all these characteristics but they may also be far more restless, prone to temper outbursts and acts of violence, and become fairly disruptive in a variety of situations. Stealing, bed wetting, bullying, breaking and complaining about physical ailments are further signs of depression.
Puberty adds a further dimension. Boys are reaching puberty earlier these days. The average age is 12 but puberty can start in boys as young as 9. Adolescence is a time of upheaval. It’s about attempting to establish an identity, thinking about the future and the life to be lead and it’s about exploring sexuality. This complex time is not without its dangers and the fact that suicide is the second leading cause of death in young men attests to this. Teenage boys can feel isolated, agitated and misunderstood. They may bury themselves in games and online activities as well as establishing relationships with other ‘outcasts’ that can lead to antisocial or criminal activities.
Despite the outward displays of defiance or indifference most adolescent boys crave the same things as the rest of us. They want love, community and attention although the conflict comes in their attempts to pull away from authority figures in order to express themselves as an individual. It can result in tensions, arguments and the start of associations or activities they know are upsetting to parents.
If you’re thinking this sounds like typical teen behavior, you’re bang on the mark. A moody, self-absorbed person isn’t easy to reach out to, especially if a large part of their mindset puts you at the heart of their confusion and distress. But as with all depressed people the worst course of action is to simply give them free space to go in whatever direction they choose. So what do we look out for? The rule of thumb is to note the persistence of behavior. Anger is normal but persistent anger isn’t. Persistent drunkenness, substance misuse or aggression are further examples.
On average, symptoms of depression appear around the age of 14, but it can be much younger. It is estimated that the vast majority of teens (probably over 80%) will not be identified as depressed and neither will they receive any help. If you have any concerns your role as parent or guardian is to seek a professional clinical evaluation. Getting help at a young age can prevent more serious depressive episodes later in life.