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

Written by 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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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.

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.

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.

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.

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


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