Is My Son Depressed, or Just Lazy?

By Jack Shriner, LICSW, CMHS

I have been asked this question by many parents with sons in middle and high school. In fact, this question often brings a family in for an initial appointment with a psychotherapist. Although I mostly hear from mothers worried about their sons, my thoughts apply well to fathers and daughters, too.

A mother will express concern that her son has been withdrawn, holed up in his room, eyes glued to his Xbox. He seems more irritable. Also, his grades may be lower than last year, he doesn’t spend as much time with friends, and it’s like pulling teeth to get him to do his household chores—let alone get ready for school in the morning.

So, does the son have a psychiatric condition that needs treatment? Or is he just pulling a fast one to get out of doing work? For parents, this often leads to another question: do I respond with concern or with discipline?

First, be sure to review the typical signs of clinical depression in the accompanying article.

It is important to remember that—aside from statements about suicide or evidence of self-harm—it’s perfectly normal for anyone to experience one or two of these things from time to time. We start talking about depression only when the symptoms are ongoing and excessive, and they cause clear problems with a child’s functioning at home or school.

So, let’s say your child is showing some signs of depression. You can be a positive influence. For starters, drop the word lazy from your vocabulary. The best way to change a child’s behavior is to encourage the behavior you want, not to criticize the behavior you don’t want. Using negative labels like “lazy” is more likely to discourage your son and may even confirm thoughts that he’s not living up to your expectations.

The bottom line is that good parenting involves a constant dance between concern and discipline. This dance is challenging, and no parent is always going to get it right. If you suspect your pre-teen or teenage son is depressed, consider the following responses:

  • Think of discipline as teaching, not punishment. Keep a calm, neutral tone when setting and enforcing rules.
  • Help your son make a plan for coping positively with sadness or stress. For example, consider using art, writing, music, exercise, relaxation, or outings.
  • Share how you deal with feelings that arise in your life, such as frustration after a hard day at work.
  • Limit factors in your son’s environment that seem to trigger negative feelings. For example, if you feel the Xbox is not helping, relocate it to the living room and limit his use.

Other circumstances such as grief, drug use or a condition called hypothyroidism can cause symptoms similar to depression. These should be ruled out by a health professional and treated appropriately.

Seek out a psychotherapist for additional help if needed. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions!

Jack Shriner, LICSW, CMHS, is a licensed clinical social worker at Pacific Medical Centers at Beacon Hill. Learn more about Jack and our other Behavioral Medicine providers. To make an appointment call 206.621.4045.