Imagine this scenario:
You notice something is off. Every time you ask your teen daughter how she is doing, she just says, “I’m fine.” It’s frustrating because you know there’s more going on than “just fine” because you are feeling it. You’ve felt the shift in her behavior and mood for a while now. Maybe you’ve even asked Dr. Google late at night, putting in her behaviors and words— searching desperately for answers to that nagging in your gut that something is wrong.
You ask your daughter about it gently. Then, she tells you, “Yeah… I’m just so tired. All I want to do is sleep . . . and sometimes I wish I’d never wake up. I’m overwhelmed with school, and I’m pretty sure I failed my math test . . . everything’s awful!” and she bursts into tears.
You realize that this fits with what you’ve been noticing—the fatigue, the closing herself off in her room, the alternating between not eating much or eating way more junk than normal, the not going out with friends, and just seeming, well, numbed out. Your daughter’s depressed. Now, your parental instinct is on full-alert and ready to protect. You want to shield her from her pain without knowing where to start, but you also know, deep down, and to your dismay, that you may not be able to stop this.
First, please know that teen depression is a really common occurrence. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), about 20% of teens and young adults live with a mental health issue like depression. In 2016, about 3.1 million teens (or approx. 13%) went through an episode of depression, and females developed depression twice as often as males (although it may also be that males express depression differently).
Second, depression is not something teens (or parents) should have to hide or feel ashamed of. Being an adolescent is a time of tremendous change, not to mention stress. This, in addition to rapid hormone and mood fluctuation, may make it unsurprising that teen depression occurs as frequently as it does. Unfortunately, the more surprising statistic is that, in 2016, only 60% of teens got treatment for their depression.
So, what can you do? As a parent of a struggling teen, it can be helpful to both offer support yourself and to support your teen in getting treatment, if needed.
Here are a few ways to support your depressed teen:
- Give space, but let them know you are there. Sometimes all parents can do is be seen, show up and that can be enough for a teen. Seriously! Show them that you will never give up hope, and you will be there whenever they call. There is power in presence.
- If your teen wants to talk, be patient and empathic. Maybe you don’t know how to relate, feel stuck on what to say to comfort them or are terrified of saying something that’ll make it worse. So, connect with your teen through your presence, and just sit with them and maybe start with an open-ended question and wait. Even if they say, “I dunno…” or “I’m fine…” Be patient, be kind. They may not understand their own emotions in that moment, and it’s okay to wait for them to figure it out. Giving them permission to have that head-space in front of you sends a message of understanding, encouragement and love.
- Offer invitations. Depression tells your teen to sleep-in all day, to not to go back to school, that life is too difficult and stressful and that they are never enough. But those are false messages disguised in their depression. Gently urge your teen to go out for coffee with you or to go on a family bike ride. Tell them what you appreciate about them or when you’re proud of them. But, don’t over do it! Keep the invitations and the praise coming (as you normally would—teens are super sensitive to changes in you), and allow them to respond as they do. One of the most helpful things you can do is to remain constant and available while offering options to help them manage their depression.
- A great proactive approach to help your teen move through depression can be to focus on contributing to others and/or society. According to Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness, altruism is proven to have a greater impact on our overall happiness than satisfying the urge to hit the snooze button on the alarm or eating a slice of cake! Helping others through volunteer work can be rewarding to someone who feels like they aren’t good enough or who has been stuck inside their own world of depression and has lost touch with others. It’s helpful to let your teen choose a place that suits their personality, such as volunteering at an animal shelter, teaching guitar lessons to kids, spending time doing river or neighborhood clean-ups, growing veggies in a community garden, or even becoming a mentor for younger kids.
- If your teen seems to be struggling for two weeks or more with the depression or if it goes away but then comes back or if you’re just concerned and want to seek professional help, it might be time to talk with them about getting some individual or group therapy. You can explain that lots of teens go through times when they’re feeling depressed or overwhelmed, and therapy can be a place just for them to get help. You can even sit down and google some therapists together, which helps get your teen’s buy in and offers hope that things can get better.
- Remember, you are not alone either. Many parents can feel helpless in the face of their teen’s depression. Take time, and care for yourself as well. To be a better parent to your child, self-care is critical. As I tell all my clients: “Self-care is not a luxury, it is a necessity”. Reach out to your friends, family, or connect with a therapist. There is no shame in needing your own support as you support the struggling teen in your life.
- If you want more support for you teen and would like for them to connect to others their age dealing with the same struggles, our teen support group might be a great resource. In group, teens come together in a safe, non-judgmental space to talk collectively about their problems and hear real feedback from their peers. Being among others going through the same issues is powerful! Since teens developmentally connect with their peers more than with adults, hearing feedback, problem-solving and support from other teens can be especially enlightening. Knowing they’re not alone offers hope to teens, as does hearing from others who have faced and survived their own challenges. If you think this might be just what your teen needs, read more about our teen support group here: http://thrivetherapyandcounseling.com/teen-group/
As a parent, you can support your teen through this challenging time, and it can be helpful to recognize when your teen needs outside support as well. If your teen is continuing to struggle, your support doesn’t seem to be enough, or you’re just at a loss for what to do, please reach out! You’re not alone, and neither is your teen.
“There's nothing like your mother's sympathetic voice to make you want to burst into tears.” ― Sophie Kinsella, Confessions of a Shopaholic
Take good care!
By: Arielle Grossman, Associate MFT 90359
Supervised by Ivy Griffin, LMFT 51714
Thrive Therapy & Counseling
1614 X Street, Suite A
Sacramento, CA 95818