How to Help a Teen with Depression
Teen depression is scary for parents because it can feel as if there is nothing you can do to help. You can see that your teen is struggling, but you can’t figure out how to make it better. In this article, I’m going to provide a step-by-step guide for how to help a teen with depression. I’ll walk you through the entire process and provide you with word-for-word examples of exactly what you can say to your depressed teen at each step of the process.
One key with teen depression is that you don’t want to start acting like you feel sorry for your teen. Respond with love, support, kindness, acceptance, and openness. That’s how to help a teen with depression. You never want to make them feel like they are wrong or weak or inferior for feeling the way they feel. This means that when you’re helping depressed teens it’s really important to respond to them with non judgement. Teens are really sensitive to when adults are judging them and in the case of teen depression it’s important for them to feel accepted.
I’m going to walk you through how to help a teen with depression one step at a time in this guide. First, I’ll show you how to tell whether your depressed teen is suffering from clinical depression or regular non-clinical depression. Next, I’ll show you how to respond to both kinds of teen depression with examples of exactly what you can say to your teenager.
How to Help a Teen with Depression
1. Determining Whether It’s “Clinical”
Like adult depression, teen depression comes in many different forms. It can vary in intensity from a fleeting state of melancholy to a crippling sadness that leaves your teen unable to interact or even get out of bed for days at a time. Before we can talk about how to help a teen with depression, we have to figure out what type of depression your teen is dealing with.
In general, psychologists divide teen depression into two major categories: clinical depression or non-clinical depression. Let’s look at the main differences and then I’ll show you how to help a teen with depression of both types.
The biggest factor that distinguishes clinical depression from regular teen depression is the inability to function normally in daily routines. If your teen is going through periods of immense sadness during which they are unable to complete simple activities like getting out of bed, grooming themselves, preparing and eating meals, doing homework, or attending school, then your teen is likely dealing with clinical teen depression.
On the other hand, if your teen is emotional, sad, tired, and “down”, but is able to complete their daily routines more or less successfully, then your teen likely has a case of non-clinical depression. The good thing about non-clinical teen depression is that it doesn’t require drugs or counseling. The bad thing is that non-clinical teen depression can last for a very long time, even years in some cases.
2. Addressing Clinical Teen Depression
First, let’s talk about how to help a teen with depression so intense it interferes with their normal daily activities. The reason this is called “clinical” depression is because it needs to be treated by a clinical psychologist. If your teen is depressed but still able to complete their standard routines, skip this and move down to Section 4, about how to help a teen with depression that doesn’t classify at clinical.
When it come to clinical depression, the first step is to get your teen professional treatment. Then the second step is to support them properly through the treatment process (see Section 3). This is often not as easy as it sounds, however. Your teen may be resistant to getting treatment.
Remember, clinical teen depression can blanket your teen with feelings of despair and hopelessness. In this state, the idea of seeking treatment can seem unappealing. Let’s talk about how to help a teen with depression to decide they will get treatment. What can you say?
One mistake many parents make here is they try to use logical arguments and medical facts they found on WebMD or Wikipedia to convince their teen that it would be a good idea to see a psychiatrist or therapist. That’s not how to help a teen with depression. These kinds of rational arguments are easy to deflect.
For instance, you might tell your teen they are suffering from teen depression and they will feel better and sleep better once their serotonin levels are stabilized. But what do you do if your teen says, “I don’t want to feel better. I’m fine. Leave me alone, you’re annoying me.” Your teen just deflected your entire argument.
Don’t try to convince your teen that getting treatment will be “good for them”.
Instead, here’s how to help a teen with depression: make it about yourself. Tell your teenager that you’re worried they might be suffering from teen depression and you wouldn’t feel like a good parent if you didn’t get them seen by a doctor.
“Hey John, you might feel like I’m overreacting and getting into your business and being totally intrusive and annoying but I’m worried that you’re suffering from teen depression and I wouldn’t feel like a good parent if I didn’t get you checked out by a doctor. I’ve been reading some articles about how to help a teen with depression and what I’ve learned has made me concerned. You can be as mad at me as you want but I love you too much to let another day go by without getting you some help.”
3. Supporting Your Teen During Treatment
Once your teen gets started with treatment and begins taking medication or participating in therapy, there is a lot you can do to support them. The important thing is to stay involved in the treatment process. Don’t assume that because your teen is working with a psychiatrist now everything is going to take care of itself. You need to continue to be proactive throughout the process.
Depressed teens might forget to take their medication some days or even purposely avoid it. Or they might skip the exercises or activities recommended by the doctor because they don’t feel like doing it. This is perfectly normal. Let’s talk about how to help a teen with depression stay on top of their treatment plan without causing arguments or damaging your relationship.
The best strategy is to tell your teenager that you want to be like their personal trainer and cheerleader to help them be successful treating their teen depression. Again, keep the focus on yourself. Don’t tell your teen that you don’t trust them to take their medication every day. Instead, say that if you didn’t help, you would be worrying all the time about whether they had taken their medication and you just can’t handle that stress.
“Hey Julie, I know you are perfectly capable of managing your own treatment. But I worry A LOT about stuff like this and think about it over and over. There is already way too much stress in my life right now for me to start worrying about this every day too. So let’s come up with an easy way for me to make sure you take your medication every day that won’t make you frustrated with me all the time.”
The other important thing parents can do to help support the treatment for teen depression is to make sure your teen is getting strenuous physical activity. Studies show that exercise can actually be just as effective at treating clinical depression as medication. Exercise triggers the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor and endorphins that improve mood and allow the brain to heal itself.
Cardiovascular exercise in particular is important for brain health. For instance, rowing has many benefits including increased blood flow to the brain and the release of serotonin, the “happy hormone,” in the body.
So let’s talk about how to help a teen with depression get enough exercise. This can be extremely difficult because depressed teens usually just want to sit around in their room and do nothing.
What usually works best is to sign your teen up for an activity or a team or a yoga class or something where they are expected to show up at a certain time. It might be as simple as finding a gym near you that offers an enticing class. Again, don’t try to convince your teen that exercise will be fun or good for them. Rational arguments rarely work with teenagers, especially when you are dealing with teen depression. Instead, blame it on your teen’s doctor or therapist.
“Hey John, Your doctor says you need more exercise to fight the depression. I’ve got to sign you up for a physical activity at least three times a week. It’s my duty as a parent! Would you rather do martial arts, track and field, or rock climbing?”
4. Non-Clinical Teen Depression
Next, I’m going to cover how to help a teen with depression that doesn’t require medical treatment. From a parenting standpoint, non-clinical teen depression can actually be tougher to deal with because you’re on your own and don’t have a doctor or therapist to help you.
First, you need to make sure your teen feels heard, understood, and comfortable talking with you about their depression. Often, when teens act mopey and lazy or complain about something trivial, our first reaction as parents is to tell them to stop whining. “It’s not that big of a deal,” we say, “quit being such a drama queen.” But this is not how to help a teen with depression feel heard and understood. Instead, this makes them feel like we aren’t taking them seriously and there’s no point in talking to us more about their feelings.
When you have a depressed teen, you need to let them know that you hear them and you’re there for them and they can talk to you about anything.
“Hey Julie, I think you were trying to talk to me last week about how you are feeling and I didn’t listen. I want you to know that I’m sorry for not taking you seriously. I was wrong. And I want to be better. So if you can forgive me, I’m ready to listen now and I promise I’ll believe and I won’t judge you.”
The other important thing is to get your teen involved in some social activities where they can interact positively with other teens. For a lot depressed teens, school is not a place where they thrive socially. Because of this, many parents wonder how to help a teen with depression find social activities to participate in outside of the school environment.
I’ve found the exact type of activity doesn’t really matter. What’s important is getting your teen out of the house and interacting with other kids their age regularly. Also, it’s best if the activity occurs at specific times and your teen is obligated to attend every week. For instance, you could help your depressed teen get a part-time job or you could get them involved in a musical group or sports team that meets at least once per week to practice.
Again, don’t try to convince your teen that they will enjoy the activity or that it will be “good for them”. That’s not how to help a teen with depression connect with other kids. Instead, you have to force them to participate as nicely as you possibly can. Don’t even mention teen depression during this conversation.
“Hey John, I realized I haven’t done a great job of pushing you to connect with other kids your age and I want to change that. You might not like this idea at first, but you didn’t like going to the doctor when you were a kid either and I took every year because I knew it was good for you in the long run. Would you rather sign up for a part-time job or a sports team? If you don’t choose one by Friday I’ll register you for Lacrosse.”