Helping Your Depressed Teenager…

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.

How do you know if your child is depressed?

Has she been sad or irritable most of the day, most days in a week for at least two weeks?
Has she lost interest in things that she used to really enjoy?
Have her eating or sleeping habits changed?
Does she have very little energy, very little motivation to do much of anything?
Is she feeling worthless, hopeless about her future, or guilty about things that aren’t her fault?
Have her grades dropped, or is she finding it difficult to concentrate?
Has she had thoughts of suicide? If so it’s crucial you have her evaluated by a mental health professional immediately. If the thoughts are really serious and there is imminent threat, you will need to take her to an ER.

If your teen shows more than a few of these signs she may have depression that warrants professional attention. While you can’t make her want to get better, there are some things that you as her parent can do. And it starts with simply being there for her.

“Be supportive

Try to build empathy and understanding by putting yourself in his shoes”

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 his shoes. You might be frustrated that he seems down and irritable a lot of the time and doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything to help himself. But if there isn’t much in his life that is making him happy, or something intensely disappointing has happened to him, it’s understandable that he might avoid things he used to enjoy and retreat to his room. Depression makes even doing the smallest things more difficult.

Try to validate his emotions, not his 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 him without trying to problem solve.

Be compassionately curious with him. Ask him questions about his 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 his problems, even if you disagree with his point of view. Listening to him talk about his problems might seem as though you’re highlighting the negative, but in fact you’re letting him know that you hear him, you see him, and you’re trying to understand — not fix him. People don’t like to be fixed. Listening without judgment will actually make him more likely to view you as an ally and someone he can turn to when he’s ready to talk.

Try also to give him opportunities to do things without being critical of him. 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 him and communicating your acceptance of him is exactly what he 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 her brother from soccer practice: These are all good things she’s doing, and it’s important to recognize them rather than thinking, “This is what she should be doing.” We all like to be appreciated and recognized for doing a good job even when it’s expected of us.

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