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ASK RENE: TEEN DEPRESSION


Hi Rene,

I have a stepson who is 15-years-old. The problem is “nothing” and a whole lot of it. All he wants to do is “nothing.” He never does anything without specifically being told to do it – everything from feeding the dog to taking a shower. He’s home for the summer and if I do not suggest stuff for him to do (go to the park, go to the library, call up a friend, etc.) he’ll do absolutely nothing.

I know teenagers are often viewed as lazy. But when I think back to myself at that time, my laziness was mostly reserved for what my mother wanted me to do. I had plenty of energy for my own plans and schemes.

He doesn’t seem to have any plans.

He does rather poorly in school – a straight C- average.

He has friends, mostly girls.

I don’t have other kids, so I’m not sure how to react.

I’ve been wondering if he’s depressed, but am sure that idea would go over like a lead balloon to his father.

What do you think? What would be evidence of true and treatable depression?

Thanks in advance, Melissa


Dear Melissa,

Thank you so much for writing. The fact that you reached out means that you sense there could be more here than meets the eye.

I spent last summer with my nephew, my first time being in such close proximity to teenagers for that amount of time. He played a lot of video games and shot some hoops but did an awful lot of eating and sleeping. In fact, he slept so much I had to mention it to my sister. I point that out because it’s important for you to distinguish what is normal teen behavior from that which is abnormal.

But I do think there is enough evidence here to be concerned. The fact that your stepson doesn’t seem to do anything unless he’s told actually sounds like normal teen behavior. But his lack of drive in school and not seeming to plan for the future might need further examination.

Has he been tested for ADHD? I ask because his struggles in school could be related to that. Children with ADHD sometimes have what are called co-morbidity factors, other conditions that exist alongside the attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Anxiety and depression are two of those. It’s terrible cycle of events; if he cannot concentrate in school, he gets bad grades, he gets bad grades, it worsens his mood and underlying depression, if that is what’s going on here.

Could he be gay? You mentioned his only friends are girls. Does he not feel comfortable around other boys? There is so much to sort out as a teenager and sexuality is part of that. You might check out P-FLAG for ideas on how to start that conversation.

Finally, has he been checked for depression? I think in society, as adults we wonder what in the world these kids have to be depressed about? But clinical depression is different from “feeling blue” from time to time or a bad mood. Has anyone in his family ever been diagnosed? Depression, which usually starts between ages 15 and 30, does run in families. Is his behavior different now than from the last time you saw him?  Have you noticed a change in the last several weeks? Has he been hopeless about the future? Giving away prized possessions? Abusing drugs and/or alcohol? Sleeping a lot or a little? These are all some of the warning signs of depression. This is very serious because with depression comes the risk of suicide. Reports indicate nearly 500,000 teens try to kill themselves each year with 5,000 actually succeeding. Suicide is the leading cause of death among adolescents and anyone who talks of killing himself or herself should be taken very seriously. If you hear that, please call suicide prevention. (1-800-SUICIDE or 1-800-784-2433 or 1-800-273-TALK 1-800-273-8255).

It’s time to talk, Melissa, to your stepson, to your husband, to your stepson’s doctor.  If you have a good relationship with your stepson perhaps you could discuss some of these things with him. If he’s like most teens, you’ll probably get monosyllabic answers to go with the rolled eyes and subtle head shakes. But he might also open up, relieved to know that someone is worried about him.

With your husband, arm yourself with knowledge and information about the disease. Depression is not something that will go away if untreated and it’s definitely not enough to say “man up” and get over it. It is a medical condition that requires professional care. You probably don’t make medical decisions for your stepson but you can certainly register your concern as you are doing now.

Lastly, the boy needs a comprehensive evaluation by his doctor. There is no real test for depression rather the doctor will make that diagnosis based on interviews with family, friends, school officials and the teen himself. Once the diagnosis is made, you can get on the path to treatment.

I must reiterate that I am not a doctor, just a mom with an abundance of common sense and the wherewithal to use it.

Melissa, I wish you the best of luck at getting to the bottom of this!

Do you have a question for Rene? She’s full of opinions and answers! Click here and fire away.

6 Comments

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  2. Danielle

    July 21, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    Renee’s advice pretty much covers it. The only other comment I would make (as a stepmother myself) is if you can, you might want to also start a conversation with the boy’s mother to try and find out what’s going on with him. But be aware that she may get defensive, so try phrasing the conversation in a way that puts you both on the same team–your/her son’s.

  3. Rene Syler

    July 21, 2010 at 11:30 pm

    Great advice, thanks Danielle!

  4. David Freeman

    July 22, 2010 at 1:05 am

    Rene’s advice WAS wonderful and comprehensive for sure. But as a guy who went through depression and divorce in his teens, I just wanted to say a couple of things. It’s true that if most of his friends are girls, that he may be gay. But he may simply be more mature from the divorce or other life experiences or be in a different place than the other boys because he’s not into sports , might be more of a reader/artist type,etc. I had alot of girls as friends back then too. And although I did not get wonderful grades, I was a voracious reader never the less. But I read what I wanted to read, not the school curriculum reading list, sadly. (I’d lost my dad at age 4, was primarily raised around women and was and am still more comfortable around them.) But girls mature faster and are allowed to have a deeper emotional life and to put in the energy to understand it. He may be depressed and not even know he is because he lacks the life experience and has never felt any other way. I thought life was pure pain for everyone when I was 16! I didn’t know it was not the norm.
    If you live with him and you wrote this letter, you probably have reason to feel this way or be worried. But even if you ask him, he may not know he’s depressed as I mention. So you have to be prepared to dig a bit to try and figure things out.
    What wrries me is that you sound worried that your husband might not deal with this too well. Is he “a macho man” who believes men are strong and silent? If so, you also have to be prepared to break through HIS WALL to ensure your stepson gets the treatment, or at least a diagnosis that he is or is not depressed in a clinical setting.
    I was lucky enough to get treatment, if about 10 years too late in comparison to this story, but it changed my life, and you can change your stepson’s if this turns out to be the case. One way to tell too is if you know there WERE things that interested or excited him at one time, in recent years, and he has not mentioned or done them sinc ethis behavior began, that alone is a strong sign he is either depressed, maybe using to self-medicate, or both. Good luck. I hope you solve this important mystery. Rene. GREAT ADVICE! If only I’d had such an imperfect mother as you, I’d now be a perfectly imperfect man!

  5. Rene Syler

    July 22, 2010 at 7:14 am

    Wow, thanks David for sharing that. There is so much truth to what you say and, for the record, we think you’re pretty perfect (in an imperfect sort of way!)

  6. juli

    April 18, 2011 at 11:08 am

    I survived 3 teenage boys and this young man doesn’t sound too troubled to me. Sure we would like our kids to excel in school, but he is pulling average grades. He’s not in danger of failing classes. So he is a loner, well some kids are. I remember cutting school, just to have some alone time. My middle son has always had girls as his closer friends, and there is nothing remotely gay about him. He was also a loner. Prefered the company of books over people. Boys seem to live in their heads a bit between 14-17. To be honest he is expressing some normal teen behaviors.
    I think Rene gave great advice about talking with his mom. It gives her respect and you insight on what is normal and not normal in his everyday. I learned that the red flags were always sudden changes from their behavior. For example my oldest was usually a warm kid who communicated well, but then suddenly my “how was your day?” questions became irritating to him..as I dug a little deeper I found he had started drinking. Boys don’t verbalize much of what they are going through. That just is, and forcing them to do so seems to add to problems. They usually tell you what is up when they are doing something; not when they are in a face to face conversation. Just my experience be it right or wrong.

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Combing the aisles at Target in search of the best deal on Cheerios, it hit Rene Syler like the stench of a dirty diaper on a hot summer’s day. Not only is perfection overrated its utterly impossible! Suddenly empowered, she figuratively donned her cape, scooped up another taco kit for dinner and Good Enough Mother was born.

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