Teen depression is on the rise, and a parent’s best strategy to help a child is to promote the development of key skills.
Believe that change is possible
One of the most important aspects of healing and recovering, whether from depression, anxiety, or a broken heart, is the belief that change is possible. Researchers call this “positive expectancy,” and when we look at the success of therapy, it figures prominently.
In order to do the hard work of changing or healing, we have to believe that change is actually an option.
Our brains are malleable and changeable, what you believe about yourself and how you view the world are significant factors in both the development and recovery from anxiety, depression, stress, chaotic relationships, and many other issues.
Depression and anxiety in teenagers are very real and very destructive when left alone, but a treatment that focuses on building resources and skills is very successful.
Love her and listen to her
Love is a powerful resource. Can she feel that you genuinely care about her? Do your words and attitudes convey that message consistently? Listening is an effective method of expressing love. Sometimes as parents, we hope to solve every problem by talking, but we may forget to listen. Encourage your teen to share her thoughts and feelings, and just listen. As you listen, pay attention to her concerns and also her outlook. Here are a few possible mindsets that might trap a teen:
Perfectionism: “Everything must – and can- be done perfectly.” This type of all-or-nothing thinking inevitably leads to feelings of failure.
Catastrophic thinking: “If one thing goes wrong, everything will fall apart and I won’t be successful in life.”
The One Path Myth: “There is only one path to a successful life. I have to find it and stay on it no matter what”
Validate her. Perhaps saying something like, “It sounds as if your concerned that… “
Then let her know that it’s normal to feel worried and anxious. We want to prevent kids and teens from feeling guilty or ashamed when they are struggling. Mental health issues like these are common and treatable.
Let her feel her feelings, but then support taking action and courageously moving into the uncertainty. Remind her that there’s more than one right way to do things. There is more than one way to be successful. Express confidence in her ability to problem solve along the way. Giving advice about how you would handle things might not be as valuable as backing off and letting her know that you are there to support her as she makes her choices.
Remember also that your thinking will greatly influence her thinking. How happy and calm you are affects how happy and successful your kids are. That might mean working on managing your own stress levels and modeling good coping skills. Staying calm helps you be a safe anchor that she can rely on.
Eat dinner together
A daily mealtime connection is like wearing a seat belt while traveling the potholed road of adolescence.
Parents need opportunities to talk with their teens, and mealtime is a perfect time to do that. In a survey, American teens said that dinnertime was when they were most likely to talk with their parents.
Studies show that kids who eat dinner with their parents have a better relationship with them.
Having a good relationship with your teen increases the likelihood that she’ll turn to you in time of need and listen to whatever advice you may give.
But the advantages of family dinner don’t end there. Studies show that kids who eat dinner with their families on a regular basis are more emotionally stable and have fewer depressive symptoms. A study in Minnesota concluded that regular family dinners were associated with lower rates of depression and suicidal thoughts in teens.
In a New Zealand study, a higher frequency of family meals was strongly associated with positive moods in adolescents.
Family dinner can also help build resilience in teens. In a recent study, kids who had been victims of cyberbullying bounced back more readily if they had regular family dinners.
Family dinners have also been found to be a powerful deterrent against high-risk behaviors.
Eating dinner together helps alleviate fear. Teens who dine regularly with their families tend to have a more positive view of the future, compared to their peers who don’t eat with parents.
Encourage social connection
Encourage your teen to get involved in face to face social interaction. This is not the time for phones and Facebook. Encourage them to go out with friends or invite friends over. Participate in activities that involve other families and give your child an opportunity to meet and connect with other kids. Suggest activities that match your teen’s interests and talents. While she may lack motivation and interest at first, as she reengages with the world, she is likely to start feeling better and regain her enthusiasm.
Encourage your teen to become involved in service and volunteer work. Doing things for others is a powerful antidepressant and self-esteem booster and gives people a sense of purpose.
Encourage physical activity
Regular exercise may help ease depression and anxiety by releasing feel-good endorphins in the brain which naturally improve mood and outlook.
Exercise also helps people take their minds off their worries so they can get away from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression and anxiety.
Seek professional help when needed
Depression and anxiety in teenagers are very real and very destructive when left alone; sometimes it is best to enlist professional help. Some signs of depression in teens include an irritable or angry mood, unexplained aches and pains, extreme sensitivity to criticism, and withdrawing from people.
If you’re unsure if your teen is depressed or just “being a teenager,” consider these factors:
how long the symptoms have been going on
how severe they are, and
how different your teen is acting from her usual self
Hormones and stress can explain the occasional bout of teenage angst—but not continuous and unrelenting unhappiness, lethargy, or irritability.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: If your child’s symptoms last for more than two weeks, or is seriously interfering with her ability to function at school or you hear her talking about suicide, it would be a very good idea for you to consult with a mental health professional as soon as possible and make an appointment.
If she is feeling acutely suicidal, there is no time to waste with appointments. Take her immediately to your local hospital emergency room, or call the suicide prevention lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or call 911.
Where to Find Help
Listed below are examples of the types of professionals and institutions who can offer help for depression. The professions and institutions listed towards the top of this list will be more directly able to help you. Those listed at the bottom of the list will be able to provide you with appropriate referrals to other mental health professionals.
Mental health specialists, including:
Licensed mental health counselors
Your family doctor
Your employer provided Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)
Nearby university or medical school-affiliated mental health clinics
Your local hospital
Community mental health centers
Your Health Maintenance Organizations (HMO) or Health Insurance company