What Not to Say to a Teen With Depression

Depression: It’s a disease that is every bit as real as diabetes or strep throat, but it’s often brushed aside or stigmatized. As the parent of a teen with depression, you might wonder what you can and should say. If you do not have depression and don’t understand how it affects the mind, it can be tempting to dismiss your child’s illness or try to talk him or her out of it. Here are some phrases to avoid when talking to a teen with depression, as well as some suggestions for what to say instead.

 

“Take your mind off it and do something else.”

While depression does cause unrealistic and dark thoughts in many people, these thoughts cannot just be turned off. Someone with depression is not able to control it at will; if they could do so, then they would. The problem with asking your teen with depression to do something else is that he or she legitimately cannot do so. Making him or her feel as though they can do something but are choosing not to can exacerbate the problem.

What to Say Instead

Instead, try validating your teen’s experience. Say something like, “I understand that it’s so hard for you to get out of bed or go out and do something. If you’d like to try, I can help you. If it is too hard right now, that’s okay.”

 

“Have you tried just thinking positive?”

Again, this type of questioning makes the disease the victim’s fault. Of course, if your son or daughter could simply think positive thoughts and feel better, they’d do so. The issue is that they can’t sustain positive thinking for any period of time. This also trivializes what they are going through. Their pain is not just a matter of thinking sad thoughts; it’s an actual illness that they cannot cope with on their own.

What to Say Instead

Instead, ask your teen with depression what you can do to help. If your teen doesn’t have an answer, just be there for them. You can try suggesting an activity that you know they enjoy, but don’t feel bad or make them feel bad if they just can’t participate right now.

 

“Everyone has stress. You just need to deal with it like everybody else.”

In most cases, depression is not simply caused by stress. Yes, the everyday ups and downs of life can make depression worse, but having a lot of homework or fighting with a friend are not the types of events that would cause a healthy person to spiral into clinical depression. It is true that there are people who have worse stress than your teen, but pointing that out is not helpful. Your teen has real pain and being told to deal with it won’t make it any better.

What to Say Instead

Instead, say, “You are feeling real pain, and you should not compare your pain to that of others.” Assure your teen with depression that he or she shouldn’t feel bad about this illness that he or she cannot control.

 

“Stop whining and complaining.”

Someone with depression often has a hard time thinking of anything positive to say. They might dwell on their problems, and to you, those problems might seem quite minor. It can absolutely be draining to listen to complaining most of the time. However, it’s important that you don’t convey this to your teen. They’re confiding in you because they feel that they can depend on you.

What to Say Instead

It is okay to need a break, and it’s okay to tell your teen that you would like to revisit the topic of whatever is bothering him or her at a later time. Just don’t make them feel bad about it. Say something like, “I understand how much this is bothering you. I would like to listen, but I just cannot right at this moment. Let’s talk more about this after dinner.”

 

“You have nothing to be depressed about.”

Depression is not an illness of logic. Many people who have suffered through tragedies worse than anything you’ve encountered do not have depression. And many people who seem to have everything they need and want do develop depression. Pointing out all of the things that your teen has that should make him or happy will not make the depression go away.

What to Say Instead

Your teen has likely questioned this him- or herself. After all, if they have loving parents, a comfortable home to live in, a school that they like, and friends to depend on, they might not understand why they feel so depressed. You can say, “I don’t know why you are depressed, and I know that you don’t, either. I would like to help you get well, so let’s think about what might help.”

 

“You just need to get out more/spend more time in the sun/take some vitamins.”

While you would not tell someone with migraines or diabetes to skip their meds and go for more walks, it’s cruel to insinuate that a teen with depression does not need the treatment prescribed by his or her mental health professional. Keep in mind that untreated depression is a risk factor for suicide and that having treatment could lower your son’s or daughter’s risk. While getting out more, taking certain vitamins, or spending more time in the sun might be great ways to give your mood a boost, they are not cures for depression.

What to Say Instead

Instead, say, “I will help you get the help that you need,” and follow through on that promise. If your teen is depressed, a check-up by his or her primary care physician can rule out or confirm any physical causes. After that, a referral to a mental health care professional can get your teen set up with the counseling and, in some cases, medication, that will help.

 

Depression is scary and overwhelming for your teen to deal with. Knowing what to say and what not to say when talking to a teen with depression will help you to help your teen get through this difficult time. Share this list with your close friends and family members so that they do not unknowingly say something to your teenager that could end up hurting more than it helps.

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