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Published on December 11, 2020

How To Help a Teen With Depression (The Parent’s Guide)

How To Help a Teen With Depression (The Parent’s Guide)

There’s no denying it—raising a teen is difficult. But raising a teen who is depressed is even more challenging. Depression in adolescents is a serious mental illness—one that can end with severe repercussions.[1] Yes, depression can occur at any time, but for teens—who are already facing peer pressure and/or parental pressure, all while undergoing hormonal changes—it can hit and hit hard. This leads to many parents asking: how can I help a teen with depression?

Understanding Teen Depression

Parents dealing with the stress of a depressed adolescent have their hands full. For some, it may sometimes be tough to differentiate between a teen who is depressed and one who is appropriately moody. Frequently, a melancholy mood can be written off as, “Oh, he’s just going through puberty!” or, “Every teenager suffers from teen angst at some point.”

It’s important to try and understand the differences, however. Teen depression is serious and should not be considered as some sort of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as something that can have long-lasting consequences. In many instances, teen depression can be alleviated with medication and/or talk therapy, among other methods.

Because it’s not easy—as a regular parent—to diagnose depression, a professional assessment is the best course of action. In that way, your teen can be diagnosed appropriately and provided with the help they need.

Teen depression is not something that you can fix with a warm batch of chocolate chip cookies or hot chicken soup. Burying your head in the sand and thinking, “they’ll get over it; they just need a little time,” could delay proper treatment and worsen the depression.

Warning Signs of Depression

Depression can radically affect your child’s personality. You might notice sadness, tearfulness, anger, and/or despair, without any logical explanation. Also, your teen may start rebelling against your authority—talking back when they never used to.

Teenagers from all walks of life are affected by depression. In fact, one out of five adolescents suffers from this mental illness.[2] And although depression is treatable, most of the kids who suffer do not receive the help they need.

Besides providing your teen with lots of love, guidance, and support, what can you—as a parent—do if you notice that your teen is possibly depressed?

Before you can help your teen with depression, you first have to know how to spot it. It is not easy, but some signs can give you a good idea as to whether or not your teen is suffering from depression.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the warning signs of depression.

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1. Low Self-Esteem

Listen to what your teen is saying. Pay close attention. Are they self-deprecating? Are they beating themselves up unnecessarily?

When your child is depressed, it can trigger and intensify feelings of ugliness or shame. They might start talking about being a failure or feeling undeserving of love. They may mention how fat or ugly they are and how they don’t have any friends, etc. This is a red flag indicating low self-esteem.

2. Abuse of Drugs and/or Alcohol

Some teens, when depressed, will start self-medicating to put an end to their suffering. They may find this relief in the form of drugs and/or alcohol.[3] Self-medicating can be harmful and may only worsen your teen’s depression.

According to an article by Nancy Schimelpfening, “because alcohol is easy to obtain and socially acceptable, it is a very popular means of self-medication for depression. Despite the fact that it is illegal for young teens to purchase alcohol, they are often able to get it through their parents’ liquor cabinets, unscrupulous store clerks, or older friends who purchase it for them.”[4]

Not only does alcohol and drug abuse not rid teens of their depression, but it also only makes it worse.

3. Social Media Addiction

Your teen may start relying more heavily on their smartphones. This is one way they feel they can connect with others and feel as though they’re escaping their feelings of despair. Unfortunately, instead of creating bonds and actual friends, it’s the isolation that becomes more significant from these empty and meaningless relationships. Instead of feeling better, your teen’s depression will intensify.

According to a study, a link has been established with “the use of social media to depression, anxiety, poorer sleep quality, lower self-esteem, inattention, and hyperactivity—often in teens and adolescents.”[5]

4, Academic Difficulties

If your teen used to be a good student but now starts missing classes, showing frustration, and lacking the necessary energy to keep prior good grades from dropping to mediocre or failing grades, then this is a huge sign to watch out for.

According to Paradigm Treatment, “there’s a clear relationship between adolescent depression and how well a teen does in school. In fact, lower grades might be the first noticeable sign of depression.”[6]

5. Impulsive and Careless Behavior

If your teen is depressed, they may start engaging in impulsive and careless behavior that could place them in harm’s way. This is very serious, so if there are signs of visible recklessness, address them immediately. Risky behaviors can include drinking and driving, unsafe sex, self-harm, suicide ideation, etc.

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6. Running Away

Running away is a loud cry for help. Your teen may feel so stuck and helpless that running away, in their minds, becomes the only way to get away from themselves. They are trying to escape something that cannot be escaped—their minds.

Running away can lead to numerous troubles for your teen. If you notice any of the above signs, you may want to open up a dialogue about how they’re feeling. Maybe start by asking, “Have you ever felt so badly that you’ve wanted to just get away from everything?”

7. Violent Behavior

Sometimes—and this happens more with boys than it does with girls—there are signs of aggression and violence. If your teen was never violent but all of the sudden starts to show signs of aggression, then appropriate action needs to be taken.[7]

8. Suicide Ideation or Attempt

This is perhaps the most urgent. If your teen is talking—even joking—about suicide, take it seriously. Immediate intervention is needed. Of course, if there’s already been an attempt, the cards are on the table. Therapeutic help with possible medications may be the solution or, at least, a step in the right direction.

You might believe that talking about suicide will cause it to happen. That is not the case. In fact, talking about suicide will actually help your child recognize that there’s a serious problem and that it’s okay to ask for help.

Additional Warning Signs

Teen depression can have far-reaching consequences. The more prepared you are as a parent to catch the early warning signs, the better. By addressing the symptoms promptly, you’ll be able to provide them with the necessary help.

Here are some additional signs to watch out for:

  • Loss of interest in their once loved activities: If your child was active and involved in sports or other group activities and now no longer shows any interest, then this is something to pay attention to.
  • Visible changes in eating or sleeping habits: If your teen is either eating too much or not enough, there’s a problem brewing. It’s the same with sleep. If you notice either too much sleeping or too little, take action.
  • Frequent crying: If your teen starts regularly crying for no apparent reason, again, this needs to be addressed.
  • Feelings of sadness or hopelessness: A depressed teen will more than likely feel sad and hopeless. They will have an apathetic attitude If not addressed, this could lead to suicide ideation or an actual suicide attempt.
  • Withdrawal from friends and family: Perhaps your teen was very social, previously participating with friends and family. Now, you notice that they are withdrawn and shying away from social activities.

Factors Causing Teen Depression

You might be wondering what causes teen depression. No one can specifically say exactly what causes depression, but several factors have been identified.

According to Kathryn Rudlin, LCSW, these are:[8]

  • Brain chemistry: Neurotransmitters are naturally occurring brain chemicals that carry signals to other parts of your brain and body. When these chemicals are abnormal or impaired, the function of nerve receptors and nerve systems changes, leading to depression.
  • Hormones: Changes in the body’s balance of hormones may be involved in causing or triggering depression.
  • Inherited traits: Depression is more common in people whose blood relatives—such as a parent or grandparent—also have the condition.
  • Early childhood trauma: Traumatic events during childhood, such as physical or emotional abuse or loss of a parent, may cause changes in the brain that make a person more susceptible to depression.
  • Learned patterns of negative thinking: Teen depression may be linked to learning to feel helpless—rather than learning to feel capable of finding solutions for life’s challenges.

What to Do When Your Teen Is Depressed

You’ve read over the above list and are pretty sure that your teen is depressed. Now what? Here are some things you can do to help your teen with depression.

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1. Talk to Your Teen

Find out as much as possible by asking lots of questions. For example, “I’ve noticed that your schoolwork is suffering. You want to talk about it?” or “I’m concerned that you’ve been spending a lot of time in your room and not going out with your friends? Is there something with which I can help?”

By opening up a dialogue, you’re going to get important information that can help you put what’s been happening into some kind of context.

2. Take Your Teen to a Mental Health Professional

You may or may not be on the right track suspecting your teen is depressed. Like I mentioned, sometimes, it’s difficult to decipher your teen’s mood. That’s why a professional—therapist, psychiatrist, or doctor—can either confirm or allay your suspicions and either point you in the right direction to get your child help or tell you to keep an eye on things and give it a little more time.

3. Explain Your Reasons for Concern.

You may want to express your concerns to your teen and the reasons why you’re having them. For instance, you might say, “I am concerned that you might be depressed. Here’s why…” Then, list the reasons. Furthermore, you can say, “If you are feeling depressed, I just want you to know that there’s help out there.”

Putting words to what your teen is feeling will validate their experience. Often, having words to our experiences can be a great relief.

4. Consider Medications

The right medication can go a long way in easing your teen’s depression. You may also want to explain that depression is not something to be ashamed of; it can happen to anyone. And with the right help, all can be right with the world again.

Note: While medications can help a great deal, you have to become very savvy about its possible side-effects, if there are any. Sometimes, the solution comes with a price. You want to make sure to talk to your doctor and make sure the price is not too high.

5. Psychotherapy

There are two therapeutic approaches (among many others) that seem to really help with teen depression: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Interpersonal Therapy (IPT).

CBT deals with thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, while IPT focuses on social relationships and communication issues.[9][10]

6. Lifestyle Adjustments

Incorporating changes to your teen’s lifestyle could make a big difference in helping your teen with depression. For example, make sure they’re getting the proper nutrition and eliminate junk food as much as possible. Implement a sleep schedule. Getting enough sleep is crucial for anyone, but for a depressed teen, it can make all the difference in the world.

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If possible, get your teen outdoors. Getting sun and doing some physical activity can alleviate depression. In fact, there are experiential type therapies that incorporate dance, art, music, hiking, boxing, etc., which are really helpful as well.

7. Reach Out to Friends and Family

Perhaps there is a good friend you can contact or a family member to whom your teen feels close. Getting them involved may be a very positive step. Their presence may create a sense of normalcy and help with their feelings of isolation.

As a parent, you need to be involved in your teen’s process. Once it is determined that your adolescent is indeed depressed, then your ongoing involvement will keep things moving forward and on track to getting them the necessary help.

Be your child’s advocate!

8. Group Therapy

Having a safe and structured venue to address issues with peers—led by a skilled and loving professional—creates the opportunity to glean some insight into their situation and to learn and incorporate new life strategies. It’s a great help to have support from peers that are experiencing similar feelings. It eliminates the loneliness and the idea that they’re the only ones suffering.

Final Thoughts

Despite the seriousness of depression, it is very treatable. The guidelines above help you identify depression earlier than later, giving your teen the best chance for recovery.

Stay active in your child’s life. Whatever course of action is taken, make sure to follow through. This is the best chance to get the foremost results for your teen.

Knowing how to help a teen with depression is not an easy task. It is one that takes a great deal of patience. Every little positive step is to be celebrated, and any setback, seen as just that—a setback, should not be confused with failure.

As a parent with a depressed teen, you may feel quite drained. It requires a lot of energy to give your teen the help they need—that’s why self-care is important. If you have no energy, how are you going to be able to help your teen? Feelings of frustration, despair, rejection, exhaustion, etc., can seem like serious blows. But take them in stride. Nothing lasts forever.

You and your teen can make it through this bumpy phase in life. The tools are always available. Use them!

And remember to keep the love flowing. That can go a long way to healing a soul.

More Tips on How to Help a Teen With Depression

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Rossana Snee

Rossana is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. She aspires to motivate, to inspire, and to awaken your best self!

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Last Updated on January 12, 2021

Signs of Depression in Children (And How to Help Them to Overcome It)

Signs of Depression in Children (And How to Help Them to Overcome It)

Children, just like adults, can be depressed. Sometimes seemingly normal children with no major life issues can become depressed. It is the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain that causes clinical depression to occur. There are specific signs that you should recognize in your child if they are depressed. Getting them help and treatment is crucial to their mental wellness.

In this article, we will look into the signs of depression in children and how parents can help them to overcome it.

Signs of depression in children

The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder) is the widely accepted instruction guide that professionals utilize for diagnosing mental disorders. The DSM characterizes a Major Depressive Episode as depressed behaviors that consistently last for two weeks or longer. Therefore, if your child has been “down in the dumps”, feeling hopeless or having sadness for more than two weeks, it should be cause for concern and investigated.

Below are signs of depression according to the DSM manual. The individual must have at least five of these behaviors present for a period of two weeks or longer to be officially diagnosed as having MDD (Major Depressive Disorder). Below is a summary/generalization from the DSM manual:

  • Feelings of deep sadness or depressed mood that last most of the day (for two weeks or more). For children they can present as irritable rather than sad.
  • Diminished interest in activities (again majority of the day or all the time).
  • Significant weight loss (not through dieting), or a decrease in appetite. In children, they fail to make expected weight gains while growing.
  • Difficulty sleeping (insomnia).
  • Either a slowing of psychomotor abilities/actions or an apparent agitation of these psychomotor abilities. This means that they either have moments that lack purpose and seem to be done because of agitation and tension or there is a significant slowness/retardation of their speech and physical actions.
  • Fatigue and loss of energy.
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt every day.
  • Difficulty thinking, making decisions, or concentrating every day. This may be reflected in their grades.
  • Preoccupation with death and dying or suicidal thoughts.

Please note that if your child is suffering from the loss of a loved one and is processing through the stages of grief, it is normal to have these signs of depression. If they seem to be stuck in the depression stage, then it is time to pursue grief counseling to help them along in the grieving process.

However, if they are not suffering from a bereavement or a medical condition that would cause the above symptoms, then they should be taken to a professional for possible diagnosis and treatment of MDD (Major Depressive Disorder).

How to help your child with depression

Depression is not to be taken lightly. Especially if suicidal thoughts are present. The child’s feelings and emotions are real and must be taken seriously. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), suicide is the number two cause of death for individuals between the ages of 10 and 34.[1]

Professional help is recommended if you believe your child fits the criterion for MDD (Major Depressive Disorder). You can take your child to their paediatrician for an evaluation and referral. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, they may benefit from medication such as anti-depressants.

Most professionals do not dispense medication as the first remedy for depression. Instead therapy is the first line of defense against depression, with medication being paired with therapy if the therapy is not enough or the symptoms are severe enough.

Testing

There are assessment tools that professionals can utilize to help in properly determining whether your child is depressed. The three tools used in assessing depression in children are:

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  • The Children’s Depression Rating Scale (CDRS)
  • Children’s Depression Inventory (CDI)
  • Clinical Global Impression (CGI)

Taking your child to a professional mental health counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist can help ensure proper testing and assessment occurs.

Therapy

There are many types of therapy available today. It is important to find a professional that specializes in childhood depression and the treatment of such.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the leading therapy methods in treating childhood depression. For younger children, play therapy is useful in treating childhood depression as children are often able to better communicate through play than conversation alone.

What parents can do at home to help their depressed child

Besides seeking for professional help, there are a couple of things that parents can do at home to help their depressed child:

1. Talk with your child about their feelings in a compassionate and empathetic manner.

It can feel high pressure to sit face to face and ask your child about their feelings. However, going on a walk, playing a board game or playing alongside your child (chose whichever is age appropriate for your child) can allow them to relax and open up about their feelings.

Ask your child open ended questions that require more than a simple yes or no to engage in more meaningful conversations. Never judge while they are being open and honest with you because it will inevitably cause them to shut down and move away from being open with you.

It is okay to allow for periods of silence during the conversations because sometimes the child is processing their thoughts and emotions during your time together. You don’t have to fill the space and entire time with talking as silence at times is helpful.

2. Provide activities that help them relax and de-stress.

For smaller children, there are simple ways to help them relax.

Provide play opportunities that they find relaxing such as coloring, painting, working with Play-do or clay, or playing with sand and sand toys. Again, find activities that interest your child and are age appropriate are helpful in making them relaxed.

3. Limit screen time.

Technology is not helpful in making your child less depressed. It can often be an escape that keeps them from further opening up about their feelings and emotions.

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Limit time in front of the TV, laptop, smart phone, video games and tablets, etc. Any electronics that seem to prevent your child from face to face interactions should be limited. Ask Dr. Sears cites that researchers have found kids who have higher levels of screen time are at greater risk for anxiety and depression.[2]

Provide alternate activities to replace the screen time such as hiking, crafting, drawing, constructing, biking and playing outside, etc. Some children may be so dependent on their screen time as their source for entertainment that they may need you to participate in alternate activities alongside them in order to get engaged in the activities.

You can’t simply tell your child to go outside to play if they are suffering from depression, lack friends and are used to sitting down and playing video games each day after school. Go outside with your child and do a nature hike or take your child to a playground and have fun together to get them engaged in these alternate activities.

4. Promote outdoor time and physical activities.

Encourage your children to take part in activities that especially involve nature such as nature hikes. Do these activities with them to help them engage in the activities. Again this is an opportunity for open conversations to occur and quality time to take place.

5. Help your child when problems and difficult tasks arise.

Assist them by helping them break down the task into smaller and more manageable parts. Children with depression often have difficulty taking on large problems and tasks and find them overwhelming. Helping them by breaking down the task into smaller and more manageable tasks will assist in helping raise their confidence when the small tasks are mastered.

Small tasks mastered lead to bigger tasks being mastered over time. It is a process over time, patience and a willingness to work alongside your child. This does not mean doing the task or taking on the problem solely yourself. Many times all the child needs is for you to break down the larger task into smaller more manageable tasks and for you to patiently talk your child through the completion of these smaller tasks.

6. Help your child reduce life stress.

When children are depressed, they have greater difficulty handling life activities in general. Cut back on activities that cause stress to increase and look for ways to help reduce stress in your child’s life.

7. Foster a positive home atmosphere.

Reduce or eliminate negative attitudes, language and conversations. Also avoid raised voices, passive aggressive behaviors and any form of physical violence in the home.

Make your home a safe haven for your child instead of an atmosphere that is ever volatile (in words, emotions or physically). Make it a calm environment that makes your child feel safe and secure mentally, emotionally and physically.

8. Help your child see the positive in life situations.

Point out the positives in a situation rather than the negatives. Help them see the bright side of any situation.

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Be a model of seeing the positive in life by speaking words that are uplifting, encouraging and positive. Resist the temptation to voice negative thoughts that come to mind as your child can feed off your emotions and words.

9. Believe your child when they talk about how they are feeling.

Listen to them patiently and take their words seriously. Do not discount or minimize their feelings. Express empathy and compassion when they do open up about their feelings. Help them utilize “I feel” statements in expressing their emotions.

10. Keep watch for suicidal behaviors.

Such behaviors include your child/teen researching this topic online, them giving away their possessions and a preoccupation with death.

Seek professional help immediately with the presentation of suicidal behaviors or thoughts. Keep this number on hand and use it when in doubt: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Phone Number 1-800-273-8255.

11. Keep all prescriptions, alcohol, drugs and weapons locked and away from children and teens.

This is a given for all children, but even more imperative for children who are depressed as they have an increased likelihood to abuse drugs and alcohol. They also have an increased likelihood to attempt suicide. So keep weapons and tools such as ropes and knives that can used for suicide out of the child’s ability to use.

12. Spend quality one-on-one time with your child.

Make the time during your day, every day, to spend quality time with your child. You may have limited time and cannot provide an hour or more a day to dedicate to one-on-one time with your child, but you should provide a minimum of 20 minutes a day with your child spending quality one-on-one time together. Try the suggested activities listed in point #3.

13. Be an encouragement and supporter of your child.

Show love and not frustration or anger because of the situation and your child’s condition. Help keep your attitude positive so your child can also see the positive.

Provide daily words of affirmation that are not based on end results (such as a grade or a win) but instead praise the effort they put forth. If you praise the outcome, they will be disappointed when their efforts don’t pan out. If they are praised for their efforts regardless of the outcome, their confidence is built based upon something that they can control (the effort they put into things).

14. Help your child to live a healthy lifestyle.

Sleep is a very important factor in your child’s mood. Not getting enough sleep can cause an entire day to be upset. According to Sleep Aid Resource, children between the ages of 3 and 18 need between 8 and 12 hours of sleep each night:[3]

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    Ensure your child is eating a healthy and balanced diet, getting physical activity/exercise daily and plenty of sleep time.

    15. Help your child foster positive relationships and friendships with their peers.

    Set up play dates for your younger child and encourage older children to invite friends over to your home.

    16. Talk about bullying.

    It can be one of the causes of your child’s depression, so discuss their life outside of home and their interactions with their peers. Help them recognize bullying and discuss how to handle bullying properly.

    17. Help your child follow the treatment plan outlined by their doctor, counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist.

    Make sure you know the treatment plan that your child’s health care professional has outlined for child. This may include counseling session recommendations, medications and recommendations to follow through with in the home. Completing the plan will help provide optimal results for your child in the long run. A plan doesn’t work unless it is followed.

    18. Recognize that professional treatment takes time to show results.

    Don’t expect results for the first few weeks. It may take a month or longer, so be patient and understanding with your child.

    Depression in children is curable

    Depression in children can happen for a variety of reasons. It is quite treatable.

    Professional help is recommended if your child can possibly be diagnosed with a depressive episode. There are interventions that can be implemented in a professional setting, at home and at school. The key is having a plan of action to help your child.

    Ignoring the problem or hoping the depression will just go away is not a good plan. Treatment is imperative to curing depression in children.

    The first step is talking to your child’s paediatrician to get the ball rolling. He or she will refer you to specialists in your area that can help your child overcome and conquer their depression one day at a time. With you by their side, each step of the way you will get through it together and it is quite possible for your relationship with your child to be strengthened in the process as well. That can be your silver lining or positive outlook on the situation at hand.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] National Institute of Mental Health: Suicide
    [2] Ask Dr. Sears: It’s a Virtual World: Setting Practical Screen Time Limits
    [3] Sleep Aid Resource: Sleep Chart

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