Picture of Catharine Hannay, MA

Catharine Hannay, MA

Catharine Hannay is the founder of MindfulTeachers.org and the author of Being You: A Girl’s Guide to Mindfulness, a workbook for teen girls on mindfulness, compassion, and self-acceptance.

Are You Missing Important Signals from Your Kids?

My mom told me that when I was a baby, she used to get so-o-o-o frustrated trying to figure out why I was crying. When she didn’t know what to do, she’d hold me up at eye level and say, “What do you want? Are you hungry? Are you sleepy? Speak to me! Use words.”

To no one’s surprise, this never worked. As an infant, I simply wasn’t capable of expressing myself in clear, comprehensible English. 

Of course no one really expects newborn babies to be able to communicate like adults. But it can be equally unrealistic to expect other kids to always give a calm, rational, verbal explanation of what they need, especially if they’re depressed, anxious, or traumatized.

Self-Destructive or Self-Protective?

Dr. Bruce Perry tells the story of one of his therapy clients, a father who was worried about his little boy. Tragically, the three-year-old witnessed his mother’s death. About six weeks later, he happened to see a grocery clerk who looked a lot like her, and he said to the clerk, “My mom’s dead. She got killed.”

After the clerk expressed her condolences, the boy’s father paid for the groceries and they left the store. As they were walking to the parking lot, the dad tried to engage his son in conversation about his mom, thinking it would help him grieve.

As he kept telling family stories and gently prompting his son to talk about his mom, “the little boy started to rock himself, then moan, then cover his ears, then rock frantically,” and finally jumped out of the cart and ran around the parking lot. 

The father worried that his son was suicidal since he’d run into traffic. As Dr. Perry explained, it’s extremely unlikely a three-year-old would want to end his own life. The boy wasn’t trying to get hit by a car, he was trying to escape from the conversation with his father because it was too much to bear. 

(from What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, p. 112-113)

Older kids might have a very different way of expressing “I can’t talk about this right now.” Rather than jumping out of a grocery cart, a teenager might slam the car door or put on headphones and blast his favorite music. He might even yell at his dad to “Shut the f— up!”

It would be a mistake to see such behavior as merely ‘teen rebellion.’ In fact, much of teen behavior that’s typically labeled ‘unsociable’ or ‘rebellious’ could actually be reaction to trauma or a sign of depression.  

Signs of Depression in Teens

As Smith et al explain, “Irritability, rather than sadness, is often the predominant mood in depressed teens. A depressed teenager may be grumpy, hostile, easily frustrated, or prone to angry outbursts.”

Here are some of the other common signals that a teen might be depressed:

  • Changes in school performance—a previously good student might start avoiding school, failing to complete assignments, or complaining that the work is too difficult or it’s too hard to concentrate;
  • Unexplained aches and pains;
  • Sudden changes in sleeping or eating habits; 
  • Withdrawing from friends and/or family;
  • Running away, or threatening to run away;
  • Drugs, alcohol, and/or excessive internet use (all of these can be attempts to self-medicate);
  • Reckless behavior, including unsafe driving or unsafe sex; and/or
  • Becoming aggressive or violent (especially among boys who’ve been bullied).

(See: “A Parent’s Guide to Teen Depression” at HelpGuide.org) 

This list includes a lot of behaviors that can be alarming for parents. The vast majority of the time, your kids aren’t doing these things to upset you. Like the little boy who felt trapped in the grocery cart, a teen may feel trapped in an unbearable situation and be looking for any possible means of escape. 


Whether you have a toddler, a teen, or a ten-year-old, it’s likely there are times when they’re struggling but aren’t able to explain exactly how they’re feeling. If you pay attention to their nonverbal signals, this will help you understand what might be going on, so you can help them get the type of support they need.

The following posts have more suggestions for effectively communicating with your kids and helping them with their challenges:

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