Depression in adolescents, difficulties in diagnosing teen depression, treatment options, and hope for parents of depressed teenagers
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A Good Night's Sleep Can Keep Your Teen From Becoming Depressed

By Leslie Davis

Letting your teens stay up to watch "The Jimmy Fallon Show" or talk on the phone with their friends may not be doing them any favors. A new study published in the journal Sleep found that later parent-set bedtimes and shorter sleep durations can lead to teenage depression and a greater risk of suicidal thoughts.

Teens should be getting about nine hours of sleep each night, but the Sleep study showed that teens are averaging fewer than eight hours of sleep. Another study, in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that 10 percent of teens sleep only five hours each night and 23 percent sleep six hours. Shortened sleep times are mainly due to parents allowing their teens to stay up later and earlier school start times that don’t allow teens to sleep in.

"The natural sleep-wake pattern shifts during adolescence, making earlier bed time and wake times more difficult. The result for students with early school start-times is a chronic sleep deficit," said Danice Eaton, Ph.D., of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lead author of the study in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

According to the Sleep study, teens with a set bedtime of midnight or later are at increased risk for depression and suicidal thoughts when compared to those with a bedtime of 10 p.m. or earlier. However, teens who perceive that they are getting enough sleep and are well-rested are less likely to suffer from depression or have suicidal thoughts.

"Later parental-set bedtimes therefore appear to result in shorter sleep durations and a higher likelihood of not getting enough sleep, which in turn are associated with depression and suicidal ideation," said the study's researchers.

Not getting enough sleep each night can result in teen depression for the following reasons:

  • Moodiness from lack of sleep, which can affect a teen's ability to handle stress and can harm relationships with friends and family.
  • Lessened ability to cope with difficult situations because of a change in emotional brain response.

Suicidal ideation can result from the impaired judgment, poor concentration and reduced impulse control brought on by lack of sleep.

Helping Your Teens Get Enough Sleep

When it comes to making sure your teens are getting enough sleep each night, there are some things you can do:

  • Enforce an earlier bedtime. You may think that setting a bedtime is only for when your children are young but, as the Sleep study shows, setting a reasonable bedtime may be necessary for children of any age. Taking into account that your teens are unlikely to go to bed exactly at a given bedtime, aim for one that is earlier so that they have enough time to relax and fall asleep before it gets too late.
  • Keep electronics out of their bedrooms. Televisions, computers, cell phones and video gaming consoles can all impede on your teens' sleep time, especially if they are in your teens' bedroom. Even if they have "gone to sleep," you may still see the glow of a monitor peek out from under their doors. Taking away these temptations may help your teens sleep better and fall asleep faster.
  • Reduce caffeine and sugar. The more sugar and caffeine your teens have during the day, the harder it will be for them to fall asleep. As much as possible, limit your teens' intake of foods and beverages containing sugar and caffeine, especially in the hours before your teens go to bed.
  • Help them relax. Between tests to cram for, essays to write, a social life to maintain and family issues, teens may feel a lot of stress and anxiety that prevents them from sleeping well. Teach them how to handle stress through exercise, journaling, listening to music or another activity that calms them and slows down their racing mind.

Treating Teen Depression

Teenage depression is not uncommon, and may be brought on by things other than a lack of sleep. More than 20 percent of teens will experience depression for a variety of reasons, from problems with friends to poor communication skills.

It's not always easy to recognize the signs of depression because teens go through a lot of mood and personality changes during their formative years. But there are some signs to look out for to know if your teens are depressed:

  • Isolation from family and friends
  • Increased pessimism and hopelessness
  • Lack of motivation and low energy
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Increased irritability
  • Erratic crying
  • Low self-esteem
  • Change in eating behaviors
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Comments about suicide or running away from home

The good news is that teen depression is treatable, and may be as easy as making sure your teens are getting enough sleep each night and talking about what's on their minds. If you recognize that your teens may be depressed, take steps at home by talking to them and paying attention to their sleeping, eating and other daily habits.

If that doesn't work, you may want to have your teen try therapy with a therapist who specializes in adolescents. A therapist may be in the best position to talk to your teens about their feelings, which they may not want to talk about with their parents. By talking through their problems and learning healthy ways to cope with stress, your teens may be able to work through their depression.

A therapist may prescribe your teens antidepressants to help reduce the symptoms of depression. Medications can be effective when used together with talk therapy, but can increase suicidal thoughts in teens, so monitoring is important.

For more severe cases of teenage depression, it may be necessary to enroll your teen in a residential treatment center that specializes in teen depression. A residential treatment center can provide therapy and structure to allow your teens to work on both their depression and any issues that caused them to get depressed in the first place.

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