If your teen is dealing with depression, it can be hard to know what to do. Will talking about it call undue attention to your teen’s negative behaviors? What kinds of questions should you ask? Should you change the way you are communicating with your adolescent? What lifestyle changes could you encourage your teen to make? And when should you seek professional advice? Read on to find out the answers to these questions and more so you can help your depressed teenager.
Know the Signs of Depression
Teens can be moody and difficult at times, so it can be hard to know when certain behaviors are just typical adolescent mood swings or a sign of something more serious. The rule of thumb is that if your teen’s symptoms have lasted longer than two weeks or they are impacting his or her life (making it so they don’t get out of bed to go to school or that they won’t see friends anymore), it’s likely that it’s something more serious than simple moodiness. Here are some symptoms that may indicate your teen is dealing with depression:
- Sadness, hopelessness, or weepiness that lasts longer than two weeks or that are impacting your teen’s daily activities.
- Feelings of guilt that are misplaced or vague.
- A constant feeling of irritation or annoyance.
- A loss of interest in things that they were previously interested in. For example, your teen might no longer care about going to sports practice or might give up a favorite hobby.
- Isolation. Your teen might stop seeing friends, not return phone calls, and not want to come out of his or her room.
- Spending an excessive amount of time on the Internet or their smartphone.
- Insomnia or oversleeping, or sometimes both.
- Excessive hunger or no appetite at all.
- A lack of focus or concentrating, declining grades in school.
- Poor personal hygiene, particularly if this hasn’t been an issue before.
- Headaches, stomach aches, digestive trouble, or muscle aches that have no physical cause.
- Having thoughts of suicide or talking frequently about death.
Ask the Right Questions
Sometimes, parents worry that if they ask their teens about suicide or depression, it will plant ideas in their head when there was no problem. This is not a concern. Talking about the issue can actually help your teen feel less alone and more supported. If they are having suicidal thoughts, knowing about it is better than not knowing about it; you can’t help them if you don’t know there’s an issue. And often, teens will not volunteer the information if they’re not asked.
Ask questions in a non-judgmental way. State what you’re noticing and ask your teen if what you are seeing is correct. For example, you could say, “I’ve noticed that you seem very sad lately. Is there something you want to talk about?” rather than, “Why are you moping around so much?” Ask your teen if they’ve considered hurting themselves or if they’ve ever thought about suicide if you suspect that they’re dealing with depression. It can be a shock to hear an affirmative answer, but then you would know that they need a prompt evaluation by a mental health professional.
Let the Positive Outweigh the Negative
Adolescents can be difficult to get along with at times, and a depressed teenager, in particular, might ignore responsibilities, snap at you in irritation, spend too much time in their room, and exhibit other unwanted behaviors. It can be easy to spend most of your time nagging or complaining. Be sure to recognize this tendency and let your positive remarks outweigh the negative remarks. This is a good rule of thumb to keep in mind for all children and teenagers, but it’s even more important when you have a teen who is dealing with depression.
Notice the good things that they are doing. Compliment them on getting their chores done (even if you had to remind them) and acknowledge that you know it’s hard for them to get up and go to school, but you’re proud that they are making the effort. For every negative thing you say, try to say two positive things. This will also help you refrain from making negative comments that really don’t need to be made. Remember, when it comes to teens, it’s important to choose your battles carefully.
Encourage Your Teen to Exercise
There is evidence that exercise can be just as effective as antidepressants when it comes to mild depression. Many times, people who are dealing with depression don’t want to get up and get moving, and that inactivity can exacerbate the condition. Even though your teen might not feel like it, encourage him or her to get some exercise each day. Even something as simple as going for a walk after dinner or going window-shopping can help boost his or her mood.
Getting outside is a great side benefit, too. Particularly in the winter months, some people suffer from a vitamin D deficiency. This is often because they’re not exposed to the sun without sunscreen, which filters the rays needed by the body to synthesize vitamin D. Going outdoors in the morning or evening (before the sun’s rays are strong enough to cause damage) without sunscreen for as little as 15 minutes can boost vitamin D levels. Supplementation can also help; talk to your teen’s doctor about whether a vitamin D supplement is appropriate for him or her. (Because vitamin D is fat-soluble, it can build up to dangerous levels if too much supplementation is given, so don’t exceed the RDA without a doctor’s approval.)
Seek Professional Help
If your teen’s symptoms have lasted more than two weeks or if you are concerned that his or her depression is severe, it’s time to seek professional help. Start with his or her pediatrician if the matter is not an emergency; that doctor can order tests to rule out physical causes and can also refer you to the right mental health specialist. If your teen is suicidal or you think they’re in danger, you can go to the nearest emergency room for a mental health evaluation and emergency treatment, if needed.