Ask BBB

Q: I’m worried that my 12-year-old stepson is starting to show signs of depression. Over the last year, he seems to only be interested in his computer, which is mostly him chatting with a friend from school. How can I help him?

I am guessing that your stepson is the firstborn in the family. That means this is your first experience mothering an almost teenager.

As you have no doubt heard through the grapevine, the teen years are a bit like the invasion of the body snatchers! While his body begins to go through physical changes, so do his attitude and behavior.

There are books aplenty that explain this stage of a child’s development as well as how to make the most of your changing relationship with him.

This is your stepson, and I wonder about your relationship with him. How long have you been stepping? Are you very close, and has he previously been communicative and open with you?

Most important, what is his father’s relationship with him? Are there other children; are you a blended family? There are many variables here that might be contributing to his behavior and might affect my answer to your question.

For now, you need to know that during the early teen years, friends rule! A teen’s behavior, his choices, his taste, his language are all defined by his friends, their social world (including social media) and his place in it.

Sad though it is, family is often second choice. This period in a child’s development is driven by his need to individuate.

The first way he does this is by distancing himself from you. How can he figure out who he is, if he spends so much time with you, doing what you ask and say, taking your advice, emulating you?

Instead, he finds refuge in his cave. Like a bear, he hibernates there, and it enables him to escape. In that cave he can be his moody, often crabby self.

Please know, it is not his fault! But, be assured, that somewhere around 17 years old, he will emerge from that cave. And you’ll have your stepson back.

All this is to say that it is tricky and important to distinguish between typical development and “trouble in River City.”

If this child is showing signs of serious depression (not a passing low point), that is cause for worry. There is depression and there is DEPRESSION.

Part of typical teen behavior is crazy moodiness that can manifest as depression. He will have highs and lows. My daughter has recalled that when she was an early teen she felt sad and cried often, and she had no idea why!

In order to determine if something is going on, you (or his father, with whomever he is most communicative) can begin by casually talking with him during the business of daily life. Be present with him (to the extent that he allows), but don’t go excavating.

Next, pay attention! Does he seem like himself? Are you picking up hints that all is not well?

Then you might ask your friends with kids of similar ages what they are experiencing. Try to get a handle on “normal.”

Next observe him and all his habits, as these are the areas where depression might show. Are his appetite, sleep habits, attention to schoolwork, meeting responsibilities relatively the same? What is he like at the dinner table? How is he treating his siblings? Just holing up in his cave does not mean he has depression.

And there is that computer! Computers, iPhones, iPads are the teen’s life line. That he buries himself in his computer does not surprise me.

I hear from many parents that one of the ways teens are socializing these days is through playing Fornite on their computers. Socializing? Crazy, but true. The times they are a changin’.

Perhaps you realize that your son doesn’t have depression but rather he is just feeling down, feeling depressed. There is no harm in coming right out and asking him in a caring, not too invasive way: “I have noticed that you seem kind of down in the dumps these days. It makes me think that there is something going on. Both your dad and I are here, if you feel like talking. Maybe we could help you work it through.”

And finally, if you find yourself at a total loss, it might be time to ask your stepson’s pediatrician for the name of a mental health professional. The teen years are bumpy, that’s for sure. And sometimes having a safe, neutral ear is in order.

Betsy Brown Braun, M.A. is a child development and behavior specialist (infants to teens), a parent educator and multiple birth parenting specialist. Betsy consults with parents privately and runs parenting groups, seminars and workshops for parents, teachers and other professionals.