Depression is among the most common mental health issues in adolescents and young adults today. According to the latest 2023 report from Mental Health America (MHA), about 16.5 percent of youth have suffered from at least one major depressive episode in the past year. More than 2.7 million teens (between the ages of 12 to 17) are currently experiencing severe depression in the United States.
Unfortunately, depression can be hard to identify in teenagers. And as a result, many cases go unseen. Because teenagers are quick to hide their struggles, withdrawing from family members or gluing themselves to their phones, parents often do not recognize when their teen needs help. Perhaps that is why the majority (60 percent) of youth with major depression do not receive mental health treatment.
Sometimes, however, it’s not that depression goes amiss—but rather, that parents do not know how to help a teenager with depression. This may be why you are here. You may have concerns about your teen’s well-being, and have already spotted the signs of depression in your teen: struggles with self-esteem, social isolation, lack of energy, increased anger, skipping school, and substance abuse are just some of the many examples. And yet, as your teen shuts themselves in their room, and (in turn) shuts you out, helping may feel like an impossible task.
How can you help a teenager with depression, if they don’t seem to want help? When should you seek out professional help for struggling teenager, and how do you start that search? This guide answers these questions, and more, providing advice for parents on how to help a teenager with depression.
How Parents Can Help a Teenager with Depression
1. Become an active listener and establish a trusting relationship.
Most of all, you need to be an advocate for your teenager. And to do this, you need to be able to listen to your teen without judgement or interruption, and without invalidating their feelings. Listen closely to what’s bothering your teen, and be empathetic and understanding, even if it may not always make sense to you. Let your teen know you love them and support them. This can help your teenager trust you, and he or she will want to come to you more when problems arise.
2. Create a safe and supportive environment.
Depression is a confusing and complicated condition, especially for teenagers who are going through many changes. They may not feel at home in their own bodies, or feel comfortable with who they are at this time in their lives. They may not feel safe in their own thoughts, or supported by their peers. As a parent, do your best to create a positive environment at home—a place they can retreat and feel comfortable, supported, and secure.
3. Encourage self-care practices.
Taking care of one’s mental health often means practicing good self-care. However, your teenager may not know what self-care looks like. As a parent, you can show your teenager how to properly care for their body and their mind. This might mean stretching, meditating, journaling, or taking walks outside. It may mean doing something that makes your teen feel happy, such as playing with the dog, baking a new dish, or relaxing with a cup of tea and a good book. Self-care practices should always involve taking time to unwind and de-compress, as well as taking time to make you feel good in your own skin.
4. Promote good physical health at home.
Physical health and mental health go hand-in-hand. When a teenager is struggling with depression, however, physical health might become less of a priority. You can help your teen re-focus on physical health by encouraging regular exercise and movement, balanced meals, and good sleeping patterns. Exercise, nutrition, and getting enough sleep have been linked to many mental health benefits, including reduced depression and stress.
5. Encourage your teen to connect with friends and family.
Inherently, teenagers are social beings and often rely on relationships with others. Although your teen may want to isolate themselves, try to find ways to get them out there again. Encourage them to interact with others through real, in-person face-time, whether that’s going out with friends, inviting friends over, or finding social activities that your teen will enjoy. Sports, extracurricular activities, or music classes are just some examples of ways you can engage your teen with others, while keeping them interested in something they love. Discourage too much time on social media, as screen time has been found to exacerbate depressive symptoms.
6. Consider seeking professional help.
Not all teenagers require therapy, but it can bring significant benefits to teenagers with depression. Therapy can help build your teenager’s self-esteem, teach them healthy coping techniques, and help them uncover the root of their negative thought patterns. It can also lead your teen to feel happier, more balanced, and more positive—which can, in turn, lead them to develop friendships, find hobbies or activities they enjoy, and make healthier choices in life.
Of course, if your teen is displaying multiple symptoms of depression that indicate a more severe case, do not hesitate to seek the help of a professional right away. Untreated depression can be dangerous, leading to suicidal ideation, self-harm, and substance abuse. Trust your gut and seek the help of a clinician if you are feeling at a loss, or are not able to get through to your teen.
How to Communicate with a Teenager Who is Depressed
The above advice can be great if your teenager is open to accepting your help. But as a parent, you may still be struggling to get through to your teenager. When doors are slamming, dinner tables are quiet, and smartphones demand attention, how can you communicate with your teen at all?
In order to help your troubled teenager, you must establish an open line of communication at home. You can start this simply by asking your teen questions: How are you feeling? What’s bothering you? Where are your friends? What can I do to help?
As your teen answers, make sure you take the time to listen—resisting any urge to intervene or criticize. Validate and acknowledge your teenager’s feelings along the way. Although you may not understand what they are going through, take their emotions seriously. Let them know that you are there for them no matter what. This can establish a trusting bond between a parent and teenager, and help your teen feel understood.
Of course, your teenager may not open up to you at first. They may be resistant to these types of conversations, or shut your questions out completely. Try to be respectful of your child setting boundaries, and give your teen the space they need to think, adapt, and communicate. Along the way, be sure to let your teen know you are concerned and want to help.
Be patient and understanding, and in time, you may find your teen comes to you for support. If your teenager does not open up, or your concerns are growing, however, always trust your gut. Do not hesitate to intervene and find help via a trusted, third-party source: a family doctor, a teacher, a school counselor, or even a mental health professional. At the end of the day, it’s important that your teenagers talk to someone, no matter who it is.
Seeking Professional Help for a Teenager with Depression
As any parent will tell you, mood swings, irritability, and lack of interest in family time are common amongst growing teenagers. However, parents should know when these “normal” behaviors start to overlap with more concerning and depressive symptoms. Seek professional help if your teen has:
- A complete lack of energy, motivation, or enjoyment
- A persistent, negative mood and outlook
- Sudden or dramatic changes in sleep, diet, or appearance
- Low self-esteem and body dysmorphia
- An extreme sensitivity to criticism
- Displayed violent or increasingly aggressive behaviors
- Experienced a drop in academic performance (or skipped school altogether)
- Pulled away from family, friends, and/or once-loved activities
- Started to display risky behaviors, like drug use or run-ins with the law
- Unexplained aches and pains, or feeling of being sick all the time
- Mentioned suicide, death, and/or self-harm
Some teenagers will be resistant to treatment, while others might be open to receiving help. For those who are hesitant, the best thing you can do is continue to push open communication—including having open conversations about the positive benefits of mental health treatment. You can say things like, “I know this is hard for you. If you’d like to talk to me, I’m here for you. If you’d like to talk to someone else who is familiar with what you are going through, I have some ideas.” You may also ask your teen if they have any ideas for therapy, or suggestions for how you can help.
Getting your teenager involved with treatment choices can be very meaningful, and show them that you care about their comfort, their opinions, and their well-being. When your teen is ready to seek help, be sure to be armed with potential options. Educate yourself about the different treatment options out there for teenagers, and the programs that align best with your child’s needs.
Finding the right treatment program for your teenager is important. Not all treatment programs are the same, and there is no single type of treatment that works for everyone. You may find that your teenager connects with some therapists, but not others. You may find that your teenager is more engaged in a residential treatment program, than outpatient therapy sessions. Explore the different types of treatment programs for your teen, and look for the following qualities:
- The treatment program specializes in adolescent and young adult treatment, where your teen will be surrounded by peers of the same age, gender, and similar backgrounds. The staff at the facility are expertly trained in the unique needs of teenagers.
- The program also prioritizes customized treatment plans. This means they take into consideration your teen’s background, experiences, academic needs, substance use history, mental health conditions, and more to develop a personalized treatment strategy.
- The treatment program is flexible, too. They are open to adjusting the treatment plan as your loved one progresses, and accommodating the changing needs of your growing teen.
- The treatment program is engaging for youth, offering interactive and recreational activities that help teenagers participate in the treatment process.
- The program places a focus on family therapy. Family is an incredible asset for young people in recovery, and fundamental to a teenager’s mental health. Family therapy can set teenagers up for success during and after treatment.
- The program offers a safe, comfortable, and encouraging environment for teenagers with depression and other mental health disorders.
- The program also specializes in dual diagnosis. Many mental health disorders are co-occurring, and a reputable treatment program understands that multiple conditions may exist.
- Finally, the program uses a variety of treatment methods that are evidence-based. Behavioral therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Motivational Interviewing have been found to be successful for teenagers struggling with mental health issues. A great treatment program will offer a range of therapies, at the individual and group level, to ensure teens find what works best for them.
How to Help Your Teen with Depression: A Recap
It can be hard to communicate with your teenager, especially when they have internal struggles that they are not ready to share. However, rest assured that there is good news: Depression in teens is both treatable and manageable. Your teenager has a high probability of overcoming these difficult symptoms, and moving forward towards a more productive, gratifying life. As a parent, you can help your teen get there through open communication, ongoing support, positive reinforcement, healthy habits at home, and professional intervention.
If you are ready to take the next step in finding a therapy program, or obtaining a mental health screening for your teenager, Turnbridge can help point you in the right direction. Call us at 877-581-1793 to learn more. Turnbridge is a recognized mental health and substance use treatment center for teenagers and young adults. We are here for you.