Depression in Teens: How to help your teen

By Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.

I have a friend whose seventeen-year-old son is really struggling right now.  He’s smart, talented, handsome, spiritually minded—and hurting.  When his mom asked me about his situation, she spent a lot of our time talking about her own feelings.  It’s incredibly difficult to see our kids in pain and not know how to help them.

If you think your teenage son or daughter is dealing with some form of depression right now, you have my sympathy.  I know that any pain your child suffers, you suffer too.

Let’s talk about what you can do at this point to respond to this difficult moment in the life of your family.

Consider whether what you’re seeing is actually depression.

Here are some signs that a teenager is depressed:

  • Sadness or feelings of hopelessness
  • Irritability, anger, or hostility
  • Tearfulness or frequent crying
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Withdrawal from friends, family, and activities
  • Feelings of worthlessness and guilt
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

I realize that some of these characteristics simply come with being an adolescent.  The key is to think about how long your teen has been dealing with these symptoms, and how severe the symptoms have been.  Also, ask yourself whether your teenager is consistently acting different from his or her usual self.

Talk to your teen.

As is so often the case, communication at this moment is crucial.  Be supportive and non-judgmental, and speak directly about what’s worrying you.  Even if your child doesn’t want to talk to you right now, make sure that you open the door and make consistent attempts at connecting.

Get professional advice.

A good first step toward getting help is to visit your family doctor, who will give your teenager a complete physical exam to check for any medical or biological reason for the symptoms you’ve noticed.  If your doctor rules out health or medical reasons for the depression, then ask for a referral to a mental health professional who has experience working with teenagers.  Teenage depression can be different from adult depression, so find someone who is qualified to work with your child.  Also, look for someone your teenager will most likely respond to.  Seeing a professional will be difficult enough for your child, so do your best to find someone whose personality will ease your teenager’s anxiety, rather than intensifying it.  I often encourage parents to call the therapist and set up an initial consultation without the child so that you can share your concerns, while getting a sense of whether or not your teen will “click” with the professional. 

If you are unsure whether your child needs help, it’s always better to err on the side of getting help.  A therapist or counselor can help you decide whether what you’re concerned about is just normal teen angst or something that requires intervention.  And if at any time you suspect that your teen is suicidal, you need to immediately contact help—if you can’t reach the child’s therapist, you should call 911.

Encourage physical and social activity.

One of the best ways you can help your teenager is to encourage him or her to stay active.  Exercise can actually relieve symptoms of depression, as can time spent with other people.  So find ways to help your teenager stay physically active—even if it just means going for a walk together—and encourage him or her to see friends and socialize.

Get the facts about depression.

Knowledge really is power.  Become your own expert on depression, so you can do whatever is necessary to make the decisions that your teenager needs you to make.  And share your knowledge with your child.  Give him or her the power of knowledge as well.

Be mindful of other members of the family.

When one member of the family is struggling, the family’s time, energy, and emotional resources are often shifted in that person’s direction.  And rightly so.  But as you try to help your teenager, don’t neglect the other members of the family, who have their own needs as well.  It can be hard to live with someone who is depressed, and parents need to take care to nurture the other children in the house who may be having a hard time with their sibling.

Take care of yourself.

Finally, don’t neglect your own needs, either.  Yes, you want to whole-heartedly seek for ways to help your teenager.  But keep in mind that you won’t be good to anyone if you wear yourself out to the point that you have nothing left within you.  So make sure that you are taking care of yourself as well.

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