The teen years in parenting are both rewarding and challenging. Some of the challenges of the teen years for parents is that the teen often wants to be in their room by themself and is seeking more and more of their independence. When kids are little, they are highly dependent on the parent to help and even rescue them in many ways. As kids grow, the role of the parent shifts into more of a support role as they often want and need to navigate problems on their own. When trying to figure out if your teen has depression and how to help as their parent, these factors can be complicated and stressful.
Here are some signs to look out for when your teen 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 is showing more than three of these signs, they may have depression and it is important that they be evaluated by a mental health professional. Parents often want to fix their teens issues and they catch themselves wishing they had a magic wand to make it all better. This comes from a place of love and care. While you can’t take it away or fix it, as their parent you can support your teen through your loving presence in their life. Here are a few ways you can support your teen:
Give empathy and understanding.
Whether your teen is thriving or struggling the most important work as a parent is strengthening your relationship with your teen. Remember what it is like to be a teen. What did you struggle with? What did you feel like your parents did not understand? What were you insecure about? Then, try to imagine what it is like to be in your teen’s shoes.
Parents who have a teen experiencing depression often feel frustrated that they seem down and irritable a lot of the time and are not doing much of anything to help themselves. Parents need to understand and get curious about how the teen is viewing or experiencing their world. Perhaps, in their perspective there isn’t much in their life that is making them happy or maybe something extremely disappointing has happened to them. It makes sense that they could start avoiding things they used to enjoy and retreat to their room if they were experiencing these things. Depression affects motivation, energy levels and mood so even the smallest things become more difficult.
Show empathy and understanding by validating their feelings. This does not mean you are condoning their unhealthy behavior. The only way to help a teen is to first connect with them and help them feel that it is safe to talk more about what is going on. For example, you could say, “It seems like you have been feeling sad lately. I’ve noticed you don’t want to do fun things as much anymore. Can you tell me more about how you been feeling?” Be clear that you want to listen and understand what is going on for them without trying to problem solve at all. Use reflective listening, showing that you understand what they are saying. Simply say back what you heard such as, “I hear that your heart is hurting right now.”
Be compassionately curious. Ask them open ended questions that check in on what they might be feeling, thinking, behaviors you are noticing or experiences they have had. Do this in a way that is not emotionally charged but very calm and collected. Teens are very sensitive to a parent being critical and often worry that others are judging them. The parent must be very mindful to suspend their first judgements, their own anxieties, and the urge to solve the teen’s problems. The worst part of any emotional pain is feeling like you are alone in that pain and that other’s do not understand. By listening without judgement, being compassionately curious and showing your teen that you care and understand, they will be more able to see you as their helper and support. Next, is to be patient and available so that they can turn to you when they feel ready to talk.
Give your teenager opportunities to do activities without being critical of them. Instead of saying, “Sweetie, you should really get up and do something. How about calling an old friend?” you might say, “I’m going to the Target to do an errand. Let me know if you want to come with me, and maybe we can get lunch together.”
Set aside time throughout the week where you have an opportunity to connect face to face with your teen without distractions or trying to multi-task. Dedicated time to connect together, without forcing the conversation a certain way, can go a long way in reducing your teen’s depression. It helps them know that they are not alone and that they have your support, which makes all the difference in recovery.
Does all of this just seem like you are not doing enough as a parent? Some parents might feel this way if they tend to be “doers”. Parents, it is so important to balance the “being and the doing”. Being present for your teen in a supportive, and not a controlling way, and being able to communicate your acceptance is exactly what your child needs from you right now. This is the roadmap for strengthening your relationship in an active way.
Accentuate the positive.
When a teen is depressed they are often locked into a negative mindset. They may interpret things from that negative mindset that sometimes make communication difficult and also decreases their self-esteem. One helpful thing parents can do is to point out the positive things your teen does, and do it often. For example you could say, “You put effort into going to school today even though your energy is so low. I know that took a lot of effort today.” You might ask, well, isn’t that what they should be doing anyway? Think about how you feel when you get praise from your boss at work. We all get a mood boost and value boost when we are appreciated and recognized for doing well or putting effort into something, even if it is expected of us. Accentuating the positive in this way can help break up the negative mindset and remind your teen that you are their ally.
Notice what type of communication you are having with your teen on a daily basis; how many negative things have you said vs how many positive things you have said. How many times have you tried to fix them or their problems? A rule of thumb with a depressed teen is that positive communication should far outweigh the negative. Did you know that or every 1 negative thing that is said to someone, 5 more positive things need to be said to balance it out? Use this ratio to be mindfully communicating in a positive way with your teen. Resist mentioning that you are disappointed that they aren’t hanging out with friends, cleaning their room, or playing their instrument. Remember that they don’t want to feel this way and if they could get better instantly they would.
Other ways you can use positive communication with your teen is to point out how you see them caring for themselves, positive ways they are communicating with others, responsibilities they are fulfilling, ways they are interacting with the family, talents and strengths they are displaying and reasons you are proud of them. Even if they don’t respond, inwardly they will appreciate that you noticed and that will draw you closer together.
Create opportunities that they can say yes to or help them accomplish tasks that are challenging for them by doing it together. One way to reengage your teen is to give opportunities to get involved in regularly scheduled activities that involve their interests and talents such as sports or art. They may struggle with motivation and interest at the beginning but as they continue this consistent schedule they should start feeling more excited and motivated. These types of activities can also be a self esteem boost!
Encourage your teen to volunteer. Helping others and making a difference in the community is a powerful antidepressant and helps improve one’s self-worth. Brainstorm various causes and organizations that your teen would be interested or gives them a sense of purpose. Bonus points for volunteering as a family, which can be a powerful and positive bonding experience.
Regular exercise makes a difference. Exercise helps ease depression symptoms by releasing feel-good endorphins, enhancing your sense of well-being. It can also help take your mind off of negative thoughts that exacerbate depression. Exercise, when it becomes a consistent part of one’s life, can also develop into a positive coping skill to help with low-self esteem and stress.
The trouble with depression is that it is difficult to find the motivation and energy to get started with exercise. One way parents can help teens with this is together create a activity schedule for their week. This can be done by starting small such as exercising for 10 minutes a day and doing it together, regardless of mood, it is simply something in the schedule that is completed. Soon the motivation and energy will start to come back and that is when that goal can increase to 15 or 20 minutes and moving up with a goal of 1 hour a day. Remember to make it something the teen wants to do and try to make it fun or relaxing such as a nature walk, playing with the dog in the backyard, or shooting hoops.
Help Your Teen Get Therapy.
If offered, many depressed teens will want to go to therapy and others will be quite resistant. Your job is not to force it but to open up the door and create the opportunity for support. You may say something like, “I know you are going through a rough time, and I have some thoughts on what could help. Let me know, if you would like me to share the ideas with you. You are not alone in this, I care about you”. Ask your teen if they believe something could really help them and let them know you are open to suggestions. You might be surprised by their answer.
Your teen is depressed which means they will be irritable towards you and will even try to push you away. It is important for you to respect their need for space and not be too pushy. You can let them know that you will give them more space, and that you want to be there for them to listen or problem solve together, when they are ready.
If they do come back to you saying that they want help, be prepared with a few options in regards to therapists you think could be a good fit. Empower them to choose the one they think they would be most comfortable with. The therapeutic relationship is one of the most important aspects to successful outcomes of therapy so it is very important to give your teen an opportunity to have ownership in their treatment choices. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is an effective therapy modality for treating teens with depression. To learn more about getting treatment for your teen at Resilience Therapy, please schedule a free 15-minute consultation with a therapist who cares and can help!