Reaching Depressed Teenagers Without Alienating Them

The teenage years are fraught with complicated emotions and social stress. Your teenager may struggle to deal with the pressure that comes from school and impending adulthood or the surging hormones of adolescence could result in a biochemical morass of depression. A child who was once happy and carefree may suddenly become sullen and withdrawn. Minor bouts of depression are normal, and with a little help from a mental health professional, your child can work through the depression and find his or her way back to happiness though they will need your unconditional love and support to get through that process.

Feeling down for a day or two, even a week, can happen to anyone. However, when symptoms persist for weeks or more than a month, your child may need professional intervention. Symptoms of depression include withdrawing from social interactions and friendships, difficulty with motivation (staying in bed all day), avoiding previously enjoyable activities, including sports or hobbies, losing or gaining weight, refusing to engage in proper self-care (such as showering and caring for their hair), or even self-harm and suicidal ideation.

If you suspect that your child is cutting, burning, or otherwise hurting himself or herself, or thinking of suicide, you need to get help as soon as possible. Try to be discrete, as there is a lot of social stigma involved when it comes to mental health issues, yet be firm.

Things You Can Say to Help Your Teenagers

Let them know that depression, while concerning, is normal. It’s okay to feel bad, and it’s okay to feel down. If it has happened as the result of a recent loss, such as a move, death in the family, a friendship or dating breakup or a divorce, depression can last for months or even years as the child moves through the grieving process. Let your teenage children know you’re seeking help not because there’s something wrong with them, but because you know they can work through it. A mental health professional can help your child process the complex emotions related to these kinds of losses and help them build resiliency.

Sometimes, however, there isn’t a triggering event that causes the depression. There could be something going on you don’t know about. Let your teenagers know that no matter what has happened, you will love them and support them. Provide an open-door policy. Again, make sure that they understand that depression is normal, particularly if it runs in your family.

Things You Shouldn’t Say to Depressed Teenagers

Sometimes, when you’re trying to help, you can stumble by saying the wrong thing. It’s important that you speak from a place of concern and compassion, not judgment. You want your child to feel supported and understood. Don’t list people who have it worse than your teen or compare their childhood to yours. That only makes your child feel defensive or guilty about the emotions they’re experiencing. Similarly, don’t suggest that your teen’s depression is just “in their head” or that they should “pull themselves up by the bootstraps.” If they could control it that easily, they likely would.

Don’t opine about how you’ve failed them as a parent or ask if you did anything wrong. If your children feel comfortable telling you about issues they’re having with you, they will do it when they’re ready. That’s another reason why a therapist is critical during this time. It can provide a safe place to talk about a wide range of issues without judgment or fear of hurting their relationship with you.

A Note About Privacy

If you are seriously concerned that your children may hurt themselves, it’s not uncommon to want to start monitoring their social media, email, or personal journal for signs that they are engaging in dangerous behaviors. Remember that your teenager assumes they have privacy in these communications, and do not ever confront them directly about what was written. Do not take anything written about you personally. Remember what you felt about your parents and other authority figures as a teenager.

Invading their privacy during a tumultuous time can make them feel violated and defensive, which can prevent them from opening up to you or anyone else about what they’re going through.

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