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Making Sense of the Hard Times: Situational Depression vs. Clinical Depression

If your teen is experiencing depression, it is likely the first time they have dealt with the overwhelming sensations that come with both situational and clinical depression. One of the ways you can help your child is by helping them recognize the difference between situational depression and clinical depression and understand their form of depression, as the treatment for these two types of depression vary.

Recognizing Situational Depression

Unlike clinical depression, doctors and psychologists have identified that situational depression is generally linked to large changes in a person’s life. Also sometimes called adjustment disorder, for teens some of these traumatic changes come in these forms:

  • Parents’ divorce
  • Death of a loved one/friend
  • Moving
  • School struggles
  • Ending a romantic relationship

Depression Symptoms for Situational and Clinical Depression

An important thing for you as the parent to keep in mind is that though situational depression isn’t a permanent disorder, the symptoms your teen is experiencing are real and genuinely impact them. Symptoms of depression (both clinical and situational) are:

  • Sad, blank, or anxious mood
  • Hopelessness or feelings of pessimism
  • Irritability or irritation in general
  • Feelings of lack of worth, helplessness, or guilt
  • Lack of interest or joy in usual activities
  • General fatigue or lower energy levels
  • Feeling restless or having trouble sitting still
  • Hard time concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Struggles with falling asleep, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Appetite and/or weight changes either up or down
  • Ideation of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
  • Physical pains such as cramps, pains/aches, digestive problems, or headaches without a clear reason why the pain is occurring. Also doesn’t ease with treatment

Work with your teen and see which of the symptoms on this list they are dealing with. It will give you both a starting point from which to manage their depression. One of the key differences will be that a clinically depressed teen will be feeling five or more of these symptoms for long recurring periods; a situationally depressed teen will feel fewer than five symptoms and for a shorter period.

Managing Situational Depression

It is a fine balance between letting your child know that their depression is temporary and making them feel like you don’t take them seriously. So while situational depression will generally go away over time, your teen will need help managing their feelings until it goes away. Let them know and see that you are there for them and take their struggles seriously. There are several ways you can work with your teen:

  • Activities – As depression can cause your teen to drop their old hobbies, encourage them to pick them up again and participate. However, if they are resistant to their old activities, get them involved in something new that fills a similar niche. So if they used to play weekend soccer games, an alternative could be joining a hiking or running group.
  • Tracking – Assessing their feelings on a daily basis (or hourly if necessary) can help your teen see their own emotional improvement. There are many tools for this, from writing in a journal or notebook, to apps.
  • Body – Healthy body, healthy mind definitely applies to situational depression. Helping your teen focus on eating nutritional food and not soothing their feelings with junk food will help lift their mood. Also, by engaging in regular exercise, they can get the endorphin high that also can boost their mood and keep depressive feelings at bay.
  • Therapy – If your teen’s situational depression is severe enough, finding a support group that shares their struggles can help them. With people they feel understand, your teen may be able to vent their feelings. Another option is personal therapy, and if other strategies are not helping them improve, medication may be needed to get your teen through this difficult point in their life.

Managing Clinical Depression

Although it is unclear just where clinical depression comes from, most doctors link it to a complex relationship between genetic factors, brain chemistry, and social factors. It is clear that it is not temporary and you will have to play a major part in helping your teen learn to live with their clinical depression. While you can and should implement the strategies in managing situational depression with your clinically depressed teen, you will need to take additional steps.

  • Therapy is key – While therapy can be optional for a situationally depressed teen, for the clinically depressed teen, therapy is a must-do. There are many types of therapies for dealing with depression, so listen closely to the feedback from your teen on how they are responding to their therapy and therapist. It may take time to find the right combination of therapy and therapist. Make sure your teen knows there is nothing wrong with them in not matching with the first therapy presented to them.
  • Medication utilization – There may be a knee-jerk reaction against medicating your teen, but clinical depression managed with therapy in concert with medication has shown the best results. The medications do not need to be a permanent fixture in your teen’s life, but it will help them as they learn to deal with their depression. However, you should watch for signs of dependency.
  • Hospitalization – In severe cases, you may need to hospitalize your teen. This route should only be considered if your teen is suicidal, or self-harming in ways you cannot help them manage with therapy and medication alone.

It is important to make sure your teen knows that neither a diagnosis of situational or clinical depression is hopeless. Working through either diagnosis will be hard, but your teen needs to know you are there for them and that you believe things will get better.

Making Sense of the Hard Times: Situational Depression vs. Clinical Depression


Tyler Jacobson

Tyler enjoys going to the mountains near his home in Draper, Utah to connect with his wife and children through camping, hiking, and quality time together. When he isn’t rebooting in the outdoors, he shares his fatherly experiences with the world through writing and creative designs. Tyler shares the ups and downs of family life and the solutions he’s found through lengthy research and involvement in the industry and his own experiences to help parents everywhere. Follow Tyler on: Twitter or LinkedIn.


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APA Reference
Jacobson, T. (2018). Making Sense of the Hard Times: Situational Depression vs. Clinical Depression. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 20, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/making-sense-of-the-hard-times-situational-depression-vs-clinical-depression/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.