What to Do if You Think Your Teenager Is Depressed
Start by listening without judgment, not trying to 'fix' them
Clinical Experts: Stephanie Dowd, PsyD , David Friedlander, PsyD
What You'll Learn
- What are the signs of depression in teenagers?
- What can parents to do to help teenagers who may be depressed?
- How is depression treated?
Signs that a teen might be depressed include being sad or irritable, losing interest in things that they used enjoy, changes in eating or sleeping habits, and low energy. Feeling worthless or hopeless about the future is a big warning sign. And a drop in grades or trouble concentrating at school can also be a symptom. If your teen shows more than a few of these signs and they don’t go away after a couple of weeks, they may have depression. And while you can’t make them want to get better, there are some things you can do to help.
Kids who are grumpy and down can be frustrating, especially if they don’t seem to be trying to help themselves. But it’s important to let them know you’re taking their feelings seriously. For example, you could say, “It seems like you’ve been really down lately. Is that true?” Make it clear you want to understand what’s troubling them without trying to jump in and solve the problem.
Ask questions and try not to judge. By listening, you’re letting them know that you hear them and you’re trying to understand. Remember, you’re not there to “fix” them. Listening without judgment will make them feel more comfortable reaching out when they’re ready to talk.
Depression can make doing even the smallest things more difficult. Make a point of noticing even simple positive things your teen does, like going to school or doing the dishes. And highlight ways they’re taking care of themselves, like doing homework, spending time with family, or keeping up with friends. Remember, this is not the time to be critical. They don’t want to feel this way. If they could snap their fingers and feel better, they would.
Try to give them opportunities to do things without being critical. Instead of saying, “Honey, you should really get up and do something,” you might say: “I’m going to do an errand. Do you want to come with me? Maybe we can get lunch together.”
Getting depressed teens into treatment can be tricky. If your child doesn’t want to go, be patient and persistent. Give them space, and let them know you’re there when they’re ready. When your teen is ready, let them choose a therapist they connect with. Make sure that whoever they decide on practices a therapy that works well for depression. Interpersonal therapy (IPT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) are often good choices. Many teens with depression also benefit from medication.
If your child is already in treatment but it isn’t helping, it may be time to make a change. This could be a different course of treatment, a new medication, or changing therapists.
When kids are young, parents are used to swooping in and rescuing them whenever they need help. As your kids get older and their problems become more complex, you have to transition into more of a supporting role, and that can be difficult. This is especially true with teens who are struggling with depression. They need help to get better, but first they have to want that help.
Signs your child is depressed:
- Have they been sad or irritable most of the day, most days in a week for at least two weeks?
- Have they lost interest in things that they used to really enjoy?
- Have their eating or sleeping habits changed?
- Do they have very little energy, very little motivation to do much of anything?
- Are they feeling worthless, hopeless about their future, or guilty about things that aren’t their fault?
- Have their grades dropped, or are they finding it difficult to concentrate?
- Have they had thoughts of suicide? If so it’s crucial you have them evaluated by a mental health professional immediately. If the thoughts are really serious and there is imminent threat, you will need to take them to an ER.
If your teen shows more than a few of these signs they may have depression that warrants professional attention. While you can’t make them want to get better, there are some things that you as their parent can do. And it starts with simply being there for them.
One of the most important things you can do for your teen is to work on strengthening your relationship. Try to build empathy and understanding by putting yourself in their shoes. You might be frustrated that they seem down and irritable a lot of the time and don’t seem to be doing much of anything to help themselves. But if there isn’t much in their life that is making them happy, or something intensely disappointing has happened to them, it’s understandable that they might avoid things they used to enjoy and retreat to their room. Depression makes even doing the smallest things more difficult.
Try to validate their emotions, not their unhealthy behavior. For example, you could say, “It seems as though you’ve been really down lately. Is that true?” Make it clear that you want to try to understand what’s troubling them without trying to problem solve.
Be compassionately curious. Ask them questions about their mood gently, without being emotional. Even parents with the best intentions often don’t realize that their concern can come across as critical rather than loving. Do not be judgmental or try to solve their problems, even if you disagree with their point of view. Listening to them talk about their problems might seem as though you’re highlighting the negative, but in fact, you’re letting them know that you hear them, you see them, and you’re trying to understand — not fix them. People don’t like to be fixed. Listening without judgment will actually make them more likely to view you as an ally and someone they can turn to when they’re ready to talk.
Try also to give them opportunities to do things without being critical of them. Instead of saying, “Honey, you should really get up and do something. How about calling an old friend?” you might say, “I’m going to the mall to do an errand. Let me know if you want to come with me, and maybe we can get lunch together.”
For some parents, this can feel passive, as though you’re not doing enough. But being there for them and communicating your acceptance is exactly what they needs from you right now. It’s actually a very active way to strengthen your relationship.
Accentuate the positive
Make sure you’re noticing the positive things your teen does, too. Going to school, holding down a part-time job, doing the dishes or picking up their brother from soccer practice: These are all good things they’re doing, and it’s important to recognize them rather than thinking, “This is what they should be doing.” We all like to be appreciated and recognized for doing a good job even when it’s expected of us.
Ask yourself how many positive things have you said to them today? How many negative things have you said? How many times have you highlighted their problems or tried to fix them? The positive should outweigh the negative. Let them know that you’re proud of them, that they’re doing a good job if you see them taking care of themselves, doing homework, interacting with the family, or doing other things that take effort. They’ll likely appreciate that you noticed.
Likewise, you don’t need to mention that you’re disappointed they aren’t hanging out with friends as much or taking the interest they used to in guitar, for example. They probably feel disappointed, too, and don’t need to be reminded of what’s not going well in their life. They don’t want to feel this way. If they could snap their fingers and feel better, they would.
Helping kids with depression get treatment
Some teens will want to go to therapy when you ask them and some won’t. For those who are resistant, know that they aren’t going to suddenly open up to the idea of therapy (or to you) quickly, but you can help guide them towards treatment by opening the door and then waiting patiently for them to walk through it.
Try saying, “I know you’re having a hard time, and I have some ideas of things that could help. If you’d like to talk with me about them, let me know. I’m here for you.” It’s also a good idea to ask them if they has any suggestions on how you might be able to help. You might be surprised with what they have to say.
Be aware that your teen might tell you to back off. That’s fine; it’s their way — albeit a slightly irritable one — of telling you that they need space. It’s normal for teenagers to want independence, and it’s important for you to respect that. You can respond by saying, “I’ll give you more space, but know that I’m here for you if you ever want to talk or hear my suggestions.”
If they do come to you wanting help, be prepared. Do your research. Find two or three therapists they can interview and tell them that they can choose the one that they feel most comfortable with, and think will help the most. Finding a therapist who is a good fit is extremely important, and making the choice theirs will help them feel ownership over their own treatment, which is extremely important to teens and sets the stage for effective therapy.
It’s also important to know that there are several different kinds of therapy that might be helpful for your teen, including some well-studied behavioral therapies. Interpersonal therapy (IPT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) have all been shown to be helpful for teenagers with depression. Make sure that your child has had a thorough evaluation that includes treatment recommendations to help guide you.
Many teens with depression benefit from medication, such as an anti-depressant. While therapy alone may be effective with mild to moderate depression, the best results are usually gained with a combination of medication and therapy. If depression medication is a consideration, it is strongly recommended that you make an appointment with a board certified child and adolescent psychiatrist (rather than a general physician) for a consultation.
Why depression treatment might not be working
If your child already is in treatment but it isn’t helping, ask them why they think that is. What isn’t helpful or what don’t they like about therapy? Are there things about therapy they do like? Maybe you can work together to find a therapist who does more of the things they like. If you do consider changing therapists, it’s important to discuss this with their current therapist before the decision to change is made. Many times, the therapy and/or the therapeutic relationship can be improved.
Keep in mind that therapy usually isn’t effective if the person in treatment isn’t committed to it, or is doing it to please someone else. Your child should want to get better for themselves. Unfortunately, sometimes people have to get worse before they want help. But the good news is that if you lay the groundwork by strengthening your connection now, they’ll be more likely to turn to you for support when they’re finally ready.
Taking care of yourself
Lastly, it’s important to make sure that you’re taking care of yourself. It can be emotionally and physically exhausting to be a parent of someone who is struggling with depression. Know that you are not alone, and get support for yourself. Make sure that you make time to do things you enjoy and go out with friends. The phrase: happy mommy (or daddy) = happy baby (read: teenager) still applies!