The teenage years are challenging enough, but when you add depression into the mix, it can make things so much more difficult for the child and their parents.
As parents, we want our child to succeed and be happy, but there is no guide book on parenting a depressed teenager (at least I never got one!). We’re stuck walking on eggshells, trying to tow a fine line between providing motivation and boundaries while not making our depressed teenager’s mental state worse.
As someone who’s struggled with their own depression, I’ve had an interesting window into what it feels like that I believe has helped me a bit in parenting a depressed teenager. I don’t claim to be an expert—I’m just sharing my personal experiences and some things we found that helped get us through these tough times.
First of all, please know that your family is not alone. Rates of teen depression are on the rise, with 1 in 5 girls and 7% of boys reporting a major depressive episode over the past year in 2017.
Academic and social pressures are felt strongly by this age group, not to mention there’s a whole lot of hormone shifts going on. All of this, along with other factors, can contribute to teens feeling consistently down and entering the throes of depression.
The good thing is, there is a lot you can do to help your teen. I also want to make sure you remember to take care of yourself throughout the challenges of parenting a depressed teenager.
Tips are based on personal experience and should not be considered medical advice. Full disclaimer.
How Parents Can Help Their Depressed Teenager
Get Your Teenager Professional Help
First off, if you have any concerns that your teen might be depressed, please seek help from a healthcare professional. They can evaluate your child and get you connected with treatment options.
As a parent, it can sometimes be hard to tell if your teen is just being a typical angsty teen or if they’re excessively withdrawn and moody to a degree that is problematic. You can learn more about teen depression warning signs.
All I can say is, if you’re wondering, it doesn’t hurt to get checked out. You don’t just snap out of depression, and it can be very dangerous, especially for teens. Don’t expect your teen to speak up and say they need help—they may not recognize it and be able to.
Certainly if they do reach out, don’t hesitate to get them seen by a professional. According to national statistics, only one-third of teen boys with depression receive treatment and less than half of teen girls.
Show Them Empathy: I See You, I Hear You
Though it can be hard to get teens to open up to their parents, try and give them the opportunity to talk to you if they’re willing. If your teen opens up to you about something they’re feeling or a struggle they’re having, do your best to show empathy.
They desperately want to feel seen and heard, and for you to understand their feelings in the best way you can. This means listening attentively. Avoid common empathy pitfalls, which means:
- Don’t jump in to try to solve the problem
- Don’t belittle their feelings with “it’s not so bad” comparisons
- Don’t immediately look for a silver lining with “try to look on the bright side…”
A lot of times, a troubled person who opens up isn’t looking for you to solve their problem. They just want to be heard.
You want to acknowledge your teen’s feelings and show that you care for them. It can be really hard just to listen, when all you want to do is make things better.
Try empathetic responses like these:
- “I’m really sorry you’re going through that.”
- “That sounds like it was really hard on you.”
- “I can see how frustrated/disappointed/hurt you are.”
- “That would upset me too.”
- “This must be hard to talk about. Thanks for telling me about it.”
- “I wish I could make it better.”
- “What’s that been like for you?”
- “Is there anything else you want to share?”
- “What do you need right now?”
Responses like these validate the person’s feelings and encourage them to keep the lines of communication open. These are difficult conversations, and no one is perfect, so just do your best and speak from your heart.
Shower Them With Love
Show your teenager that you’re always in their corner. I always tell my kids that I’m not always happy with their decisions, but I will always love them. I also acknowledge that we all make mistakes–even parents.
Depressed teenagers are struggling in a big way. They likely feel like they are worthless, so anything you can do to counteract this and boost them up will be helpful.
They need to hear, feel, and see your love. Tell them things like:
- “I love you.”
- “I’m proud of you.”
- “You’re so kind/brave/strong.”
- “I’m here for you.”
My teenager responds positively to deep pressure input, so I make a point to offer a big hug whenever I can sense he needs it. There are many ways you can show your love. What is your child’s love language?
Teenagers may seem too cool for the love of their parents, but they’re not. They need it.
Maybe you pick up their favorite treat when you’re out running an errand, or you ask if they want to go out with just you. I gave my teen some uplifting books to let him know I was thinking of him.
Even if their responses don’t seem gracious, keep offering your love. It makes a difference.
Get Them Out of Their Room
Isolation is a big problem with depressed teens and was one of our greatest struggles. I know teenagers like to hole up in their room, but with depression, it reaches a whole other level.
Being stuck in their room alone with all their thoughts is not helpful.
Keep making an effort to get them out of their room and join the family or go do something. Depression makes you just want to stay in bed; the pull is pretty indescribable. They’ll have no energy or motivation to get out themselves, so they need your help.
Parenting a depressed teenager can be like trying to coax a bear out of hibernation. When nothing seems enjoyable or interesting, how do you get them out?
You just keep trying, even if it’s for 10 minutes at first. Ask them to simply give something a try, especially if it is something they used to enjoy.
You might need to reach an agreement on how much time is acceptable for your teenager to spend in their room. A neutral third party like a therapist could be helpful for this.
Help Them Connect With Healthy Friends
Teenagers need their friends, at this time in their life as much as they need their parents. Support and encourage their friendships as much as possible. They’ll need someone to talk to when they don’t want to open up to you.
Help them arrange meetups with their friends if you can. Open up your home or offer to drive them places.
If your teen doesn’t have many friends, see if you can get them to join an activity outside of school that’s in line with their interests (not yours) and has peers their age. Aim for something light and enjoyable, not stressful or competitive.
Keep an eye on your teenager’s relationships and have a discussion if you worry any of these relationships may be unhealthy or unsafe.
If your child has close friends they may confide in, it might be helpful to give the friend’s parents a heads up about what your teen is going through. The parents should tell their child that if their friend ever makes concerning statements or they are worried about their safety, they should speak up and tell an adult right away.
It is not betraying a friend’s trust to put his safety first. Knowing what your teen is going through, hopefully they will also show some extra compassion to a friend in need.
Celebrate Small Victories
Something I did not understand before my own battle with major depression is just how hard every small task seems when you’re depressed. Something as simple as taking a shower and putting on clean clothes can feel completely insurmountable.
Doing a regular everyday task can be mentally and physically exhausting. I learned a lot from my depressed teenager, and one of the main things is just how strong depressed people are. To keep battling through that thick fog every day, fighting to keep going, takes so much energy.
Put yourself in these shoes, and then understand why it’s important to celebrate the little things. If my teenager took a shower without prompting, came and joined the family, or did his laundry or school work, you better believe I told him how amazing he was.
Big improvements take time so don’t forget to celebrate the little everyday victories along the way. Know your depressed teenager worked so hard for them.
Provide Structure and Support
Remember the part about laying in bed all day and not showering? Your teenager is likely going to need nudges to get them to move.
Come up with expectations and agree upon them together (try to keep things reasonable and manageable). What about a daily schedule? Routine can take some of the mental effort out of day-to-day tasks.
Help them stick to their routine as much as possible. It may feel like you’re revisiting the preschool age, but this is the support your child needs right now.
Make sure you’re helping them check off the basics like:
- Is your teen getting enough sleep?
- Are they taking breaks from their electronics, and in particular, social media?
- Are they eating foods that will nourish them?
These are some of the things that can slip when battling depression, and not having the basics addressed will only worsen mood.
Prioritize Mental Health
When your child is struggling in such a big way, their mental health matters above all else. Academic success, jobs, sports, driving, and everything else should take a back seat to getting them the help and support they need to get well.
You might have to do some extra work with the school for a period of time. Advocate for your child, because depression is a serious and legitimate medical condition. They may need extra supports in place until they are well and perhaps even beyond to avoid a recurrence.
It can be helpful to work closely with your teenager’s providers and school counselor or teachers to come up with a plan that’s best for your child.
Have a Safety Plan
Your child’s healthcare provider should work with them to develop a safety plan that has concrete steps your child should take if they should have thoughts of harming themself.
Ask your child’s healthcare provider if you should take any special precautions at home.
If you’re ever concerned about your child’s immediate safety, do not leave them alone, call their provider or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255), or take them to the nearest emergency room.
How Parents Can Take Care of Themselves
I think it’s also important in this post to take some time to focus on the parents. Parenting a depressed teenager is scary stuff. It’s a big load to carry on top of what is already a challenging time: guiding your child through their teenage years.
Your child needs you at your best to help them beat depression, and this means taking care of yourself is also critical.
Get Yourself Some Help
The worry, guilt, and fear that can come along with parenting a depressed teenager can be troubling. I know I was always second-guessing myself and feeling as if I’d done something wrong.
I had to deal with this on top of everything else in my life, and I was scared stiff for my child.
The hard part is, depression is not easily reversed. In the best case, you should see steady, measured progress, but it takes weeks and months. It can be so difficult to watch your child go through it and not be able to fix it easily.
Check in with yourself and see if you might need to speak to a counselor of your own to work through some of these feelings or get guidance.
I know I never wanted any personal strain to show in front of my child, because I didn’t want them to feel guilty or worse. It’s a tough situation to be in.
Use Your Support System
Whether you need to speak to a professional might depend on how strong your existing support system is. Are there people in your life you can talk to?
Can you unload any of your other responsibilities when needed? It’s OK to ask for help.
If you have multiple children, it can be hard when one needs so much of your attention during this delicate time. It ends up being quite the balancing act.
Is your workplace understanding of time you need to take off to get your child to appointments or be there for them? Feel free to speak to your human resources department if needed to see what options might be available to you.
Make sure the load you’re bearing isn’t too much to handle. You don’t need your own breakdown on top of all this.
Make Time for Self-Care
Plan some time for personal escape just for you. Do something relaxing, an activity you enjoy, or meet up with a friend. Self-care can be any activity that contributes to your well-being.
Make sure you are getting regular opportunities for rejuvenation. They don’t always have to be elaborate. Even a few minutes from home to meditate, do yoga, read, or enjoy a nice cup of tea can help you rebuild your personal strength.
Self-care isn’t selfish! Take it from a mom whose been through burnout and back—self-care is a must.
During challenging times in particular, I urge you to take care of yourself.
Be Kind to Yourself
Parenting a depressed teenager is no easy task. It’s a long-term battle you never signed up for that will test your parenting skills and personal strength.
Throughout this journey, please be kind to yourself. You will second guess yourself, likely make mistakes, and you will learn through trial and error. As long as you have love in your heart, you will be making every effort to help your depressed teenager the best way you know how.
Don’t play the blame game with yourself or your partner—it’s not productive.
One of the most difficult parts is the unknown of the depression journey. No matter how hard you try, treatment success isn’t entirely under your control. If there are setbacks (and there very well may be), do not take them as a parental failure.
You will get through this a stronger parent, but you may even fall apart a little bit along the way. Pick up, forgive yourself, and keep moving for your child.
You can do this—depression can be beaten. Wishing your family strength and healing.
If you have any other tips for parenting a depressed teenager, please share them!