When your child is unhappy, it can be difficult to know how to best support him or her. When that unhappiness is actually clinical depression, it can be overwhelming and scary. With suicide being the second-leading cause of death in teens in the United States, it’s a definite concern when a young person is dealing with depression. As a parent, knowing what to do to support a depressed child can make a difference in how your child feels and how the condition is managed.
Know the Symptoms of Depression
Many parents aren’t sure whether the feelings and behaviors their teen is experiencing are due to common teenage moodiness or a more serious condition, like depression. Adolescents are dealing with major changes in their lives, more responsibilities, issues with peers, and hormonal fluctuations, so it’s common for them to sometimes feel frustrated, angry, sad, or overwhelmed. Take a look at this list of the symptoms of depression; if your teen is exhibiting them, an evaluation to rule out or confirm depression is in order.
- Intense feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
- Milder feelings of sadness or hopelessness that last two weeks or more.
- Difficulty concentrating or focusing on schoolwork.
- Feelings of misplaced guilt or guilt for no reason.
- Loss of interest in the activities, people, and things that they usually find enjoyable.
- Isolating him- or herself in their bedroom and minimizing or refusing interaction with others in the household.
- Dropping friends, not socializing.
- Sleeping too much.
- Sleeping too little.
- Eating too much or too little.
- Physical manifestations that aren’t caused by a physical condition: headaches, digestive complaints, aches and pains, etc.
- Talking about suicide or showing other signs of suicidal ideation.
Talk to Your Teen About His or Her Feelings
One of the best ways you can support your teen is by talking to them about their feelings. Ask them if they think they are depressed. If they say yes, ask if they ever think about suicide. Many parents are hesitant to ask this question because they think that it might plant the idea in their child’s head; actually, however, talking about it is a good way to find out whether you need to seek help for your teen, potentially preventing a suicide attempt or suicide completion.
Ask your teen about what they feel. Don’t try to rationalize away their feelings and don’t overreact. Instead, ask how long they’ve been feeling this way and whether they’ve tried anything to feel better. Try to avoid including judgment in the conversation. Let them know that you are there for them and that you want to help them get better.
Avoid Saying the Wrong Thing
There are some things that well-meaning people sometimes say to people with depression that are just not helpful. For example, you might think that pointing out that others have it far worse than your teen will help them feel better. It won’t. Your child knows that their feelings aren’t really rational, but that doesn’t stop the feelings and thoughts from coming.
Don’t accuse your depressed child of trying to get attention or of making it up. Most people do not want to feel sad; if your adolescent is feeling hopeless, telling them that they are just acting out is not going to help them feel any better. Some other phrases you should not say to your depressed child include:
- “Just think positive.”
- “Snap out of it.”
- “You’re just bringing everyone else around you down.”
Encourage a Healthy Lifestyle
Although depression is a mental health condition, improving physical health habits can often help. The problem is often that depression makes it difficult for people to take care of their physical help, and this, in turn, can cause a worsening of the disease. Talk to your teen and encourage him or her to try the following.
Exercise Every Day
Getting some physical activity in every day can lift your child’s mood. They don’t have to run five miles; swimming in the family pool, taking the dog for a walk, or even walking around the mall can help. If your teen doesn’t feel like leaving the house, consider getting a treadmill for them to walk or jog on. Getting 30 minutes of exercise per day can help your child feel better.
Young people are notoriously sleep-deprived; this sleep deprivation can make conditions like depression and anxiety worse. At the same time, spending the day in bed is not good for depression. Urge your teen to go to bed at a reasonable time so they can get between nine and ten hours of sleep each night, then encourage them to get out of bed in the morning. If he or she is struggling with insomnia, see a doctor to try to get that under control.
Spend Some Time Outdoors Each Day
Spending time in the sun can make people feel better, particularly during the winter months, when seasonal affective disorder can make people feel slow and lethargic. Fresh air helps, as does the sun; we synthesize vitamin D from sun exposure, and vitamin D can help stave off depression.
Seek Professional Help for Your Depressed Child
While support and lifestyle changes can improve mild depression, those with moderate or severe depression need professional mental health care. Talk to your child’s doctor, who can run some tests to see if they have a physical condition that is mimicking depression. If not, a referral to a counselor, a psychologist, or a psychiatrist is likely in order.
If your teen is showing signs of suicidality, seek immediate emergency assistance. You can call 911 or head to the nearest emergency room if you feel that danger is imminent. They can keep your child overnight for a few days to determine the problem and get him or her on a treatment plan.
Don’t Forget About Yourself
It can be hard to support a depressed child, so be sure to take good care of yourself and to seek help if you need it. Make sure you’re eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, and getting some time to yourself to relax or spend time doing something fun. Also, make yourself an appointment with a therapist if you are finding it hard to cope. Keeping yourself physically and mentally healthy will allow you to devote the energy necessary to support your child through his or her depression.