ASK MOM - Is it adolescent malaise, or depression?

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DEAR MOM: My 16-year-old son has no ambition. I've noticed this lack for some time, but my wife assures me this is just normal adolescent flightiness.

Because I value her opinion, I've tried not to get too worried about my kid's blas attitude toward life.

But recently, my fears were resurrected when I ran into the coach of the Little League team my son once played on. The coach is a good guy, he's happy to see me, and he starts asking about my son, what he's up to and then telling me about his boys and all they're doing.

The spontaneous compare and contrast was rough. His boys are both learning how to drive, they're playing ball for their school, one has a girlfriend and they're thinking about college.

Recently, when I asked my son if he wanted to learn how to drive, he barely took his eyes off the TV long enough to shrug his shoulders and shake his head "no." My wife said plenty of kids don't care to drive. I'm no expert, but my gut tells me something isn't coming together for my son. Isn't it normal for kids to have things to look forward to?

When I was his age I was busy working, playing my guitar and building things in my dad's shop. I couldn't wait to be out on my own.

When I ask my son what he would like to do after he graduates he scowls and accuses me of being obsessed with work and money. His contempt for work and the rewards earned from such worries me. Your thoughts would be appreciated. -- WORKING FATHER



DEAR WORKING FATHER: From the sound of your letter, you've got a pretty reliable gut. Something doesn't sound quite right with your son and you've been paying attention to this for some time, while simultaneously being respectful of your wife's alternative explanations for his behavior.

The dynamic that seems to be playing out between the two of you seems to me a common one: she is taking the "let's not panic" side and you are taking the role of scoping out danger ahead.

One way to keep you on the same page is to address the importance of both your styles of managing life. We need people willing to speak the painful truth, and we need people to put that truth into perspective.

From what you wrote, your son does seem stuck. And, as your wife says, this can be a normal aspect of being a teenager. In this instance, determining how both of you are right will set the stage for your working as a team to get your son the help he needs.

One of the primary ways of diagnosing adolescent depression is a loss of interest or pleasure in activities one once found enjoyable. This is often a tough symptom for parents to tease apart from common adolescent malaise.

Depression can also interfere with motivation, and inhibit forward thinking, just the thing adolescents need to be doing to prepare to leave the nest. Depressed adolescents are often more withdrawn, have less to say, feel more shame and guilt and experience more hopelessness about the future.

It would be a good idea to take your son to his primary care provider for a checkup. You can let your doctor know your concerns ahead of time. If your son has a mental health issue, your doctor will usually refer you to a mental health provider.

Regardless of what is going on with your child, it will be good for you to let him know of your own concern in a kind, compassionate way. Without blaming or judging, take time to sit next to him and let him know you have noticed his loss of interest in what he used to enjoy, and are wondering how you can help him. While parental empathy and concern may not move mountains, parental support and care are essential in empowering children to climb them.

Ask Mom is a weekly feature in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. If you have a question you would like to submit to the Ask Mom panel, send it to catherinehicks@wwub.com. This week's column was written by Patrice Janda, MSW therapist with Cocoon Project SAFE. Cocoon Project SAFE serves Walla Walla parents of teens. For free consultation and support, call 1-877-339-4179.

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