How to Support Your Depressed Teenager

Is your teen struggling with depression? The teenage years are known for being difficult for quite a few reasons:

First, teens today are under more stress than those in past generations.

Also, adolescents are dealing with hormonal fluctuations combined with the difficult work of leaving childhood behind and entering adulthood. Their brains have not yet achieved their adult form, which can lead to poor decision-making.

Finally, many teenagers struggle with conditions such as ADHD, high-functioning autism, anxiety disorders, and more.

If you suspect that your teen may be struggling with depression, here is some information you need to know about how to support your depressed teenager during this time.

Understand the Difference Between Moodiness and Depression

A slammed door, an eye roll, tears, and happy excitement can all be part of your teenager’s day… or even part of the hour before he or she leaves for school! There’s no doubt about it: adolescents can be moody. When, however, does a teen’s behavior signal that these mood swings are more serious than simply “being a teenager”?

Here are some symptoms of clinical depression that warrant evaluation:

  • A feeling of sadness or hopelessness that lasts longer than two weeks or that is severe enough to impact daily activities.
  • Insomnia or sleeping too much. Sometimes people who are depressed will have both of these symptoms and will be up all night and want to sleep all day.
  • Changes in appetite, either not eating enough or eating too much.
  • Uncharacteristically poor school performance.
  • Isolation: Your teen might not want to come out of his or her bedroom and might refuse to go out and interact with friends.
  • Frequent angry outbursts or frequent irritation.
  • Crying and tearfulness.
  • A feeling of guilt, particularly if it’s not based on anything that they did wrong.
  • Loss of interest in activities that they previously enjoyed.
  • Physical symptoms like frequent headaches, digestive complaints, or muscle aches.
  • Talking about wishing they were dead or other symptoms of suicidality.

Take Them for a Physical

Your teen’s primary doctor is someone who can help determine whether these symptoms are caused by a physical problem or a mental health issue, such as depression. There are some medical issues that can mimic depression. For example, a low-functioning thyroid can cause lethargy, weight gain, and trouble focusing in school. Chronic fatigue syndrome can cause sleeping too much, muscle aches, and headaches.

Your child’s doctor will probably want to run some blood tests to check for vitamin deficiencies. Vitamin D deficiency can cause depression-like symptoms and is easily remedied with a vitamin D supplement. Particularly if you live in a northern state or if your teen does not spend much time outdoors (or if he or she wears sunscreen every day, all day), they might be at risk for a vitamin D deficiency.

Talk to Them About Their Feelings

Talk to your depressed teenager about how he or she is feeling. Make sure that you ask questions and don’t assume. Also, avoid being judgmental. Keep in mind you might not see a rational reason for your teen’s depression; mental health issues are not able to be rationalized away. Avoid trying to offer solutions for your teen’s feelings. Just let him or her talk.

While many parents are hesitant to broach the topic, ask your teen if he or she has ever thought they wanted to harm themselves or thought about suicide. Opening up this topic for discussion is not going to plant a seed of thought; instead, it will allow your teen to talk about whether he or she has considered self-harm or suicide. You might be shocked if they say yes; try not to panic. If your teen is currently suicidal or is in immediate danger, then seek emergency mental health services. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or 911, or you can go to the nearest emergency room. Most of the time, however, fleeting thoughts of suicide are something that needs to be evaluated promptly by a mental health professional but not an immediate emergency. Take the steps necessary to keep your child safe by making sure that they don’t have access to firearms and other weapons.

Educate Yourself About Common Misconceptions

There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding depression and other mental health issues. It’s important to educate yourself so you can avoid assuming that these myths are true.

For example, many people believe that those with depression can simply stay busy and stop thinking about it. This is not the case. Others might think that depression is just sadness about an event. While sometimes a traumatic event or a great loss can trigger depression, a lot of the time it develops for unknown reasons.

Knowing more about depression will help you to support your depressed teenager and it will also help you avoid saying things that can make your teen feel worse. For example, telling your teen that they just need to think more positively or that they need to get out more can put the blame on them, which can just make matters worse.

Encourage Good Exercise and Sleep Habits

Depression can make people not want to get out of bed. It can also cause insomnia. Unfortunately, sleeping the day away can also exacerbate depression, so this creates a cycle that’s hard to break. Getting up and getting some exercise each day can often help people with depression feel better. For mild depression, daily exercise might be just as effective as antidepressants (and comes with no side effects). For moderate to severe depression, exercise can be a good addition to the treatment plan. Encourage your teen to go to bed at a reasonable time and also to get some physical activity each day.

Take Your Depressed Teenager to a Mental Health Professional

Finally, make sure that your depressed teenager is not facing his or her illness alone. While you can provide support, a mental health professional might be needed to coordinate therapy and, in some cases, medication that will treat the depression. Depression is real and often needs to be treated. Talk to your teen’s doctor about getting a referral to the appropriate mental health care professional who will be able to meet your adolescent’s needs.