Depression can be hard on anyone, but it’s especially tough to watch your own child go through it. And while it is a serious mental health issue that’s affecting nearly three million American teens, ages 12 to 17, it’s a treatable disorder if diagnosed.
It can be hard to decipher normal teenage irritability from signs of depression. However, if your teen withdraws from family or friends, shows a decline in school performance or seems unmotivated to participate in things they once enjoyed, it might be time to see your healthcare provider. Scott Adams, Ph.D, Director of Youth Psychology and Quality at the Medical Center of Aurora explains how parents can help their teens if they're showing warning signs.
1. Spend time with your child.
“If you start to notice behavioral or emotional changes or if they're not acting the way they used to, you can't ignore it,” says Adams. He sees a lot of parents brush off depression as a phase their child is going through, which is the number one thing you shouldn’t do. “If your gut is telling you that something isn’t right or something is off, then pay attention to that,” he adds.
An easy way to make sure you’re in the loop when it comes to your child is to spend time with them and connect. “Try to set aside a time each day to spend with them,” says Adams. And the time shouldn’t involve the internet, television, social media or any other distractions. Volunteering is a great activity you can do together.
2. Listen to them.
If your teen is showing warning signs, listening to them is key. “You have to ask questions, especially if you’re seeing behavioral changes,” says Adams. Reprimanding them for acting out probably won’t help.
If you’re wondering how to talk to them, a non-threating, non-lecturing tone is best. Adams says you want to access and acknowledge their feelings to really understand the stage they’re in.
3. Help your child make physical health a priority.
Poor health habits may make a teenager’s mental health worse. Get your teen to make their physical health more of a priority, says Adams. Things like not enough sleep, poor hygiene or nutrition can certainly exacerbate depression symptoms, he adds.
Another tip: make sure their screen time doesn’t exceed two hours per day because when they’re online, they’re not active. “Try to make sure that you're providing them nutritious meals and that you're giving them the opportunity to get plenty of sleep,” says Adams. Encourage them to join the local gym, get out of the house for a game of football with neighborhood friends, or take up jogging.
4. Take care of yourself, too.
It’s easy for parents to focus all of their energy and attention on the adolescent that may be depressed, but that can have unintended consequences, says Adams.
“You really need to make sure you're not spending so much time and energy on the teen who's depressed that you're ignoring your own needs and the needs of the rest of your family,” says Adams.
His biggest piece of advice? Reach out for support. “You need to make sure that you're reaching out and getting the kind of support you need, so the whole family can make it through this,” says Adams. “It's not just an individual child who would be going through this. It affects everybody.”
Parents can get help through in person or online support groups. Organizations like Erika’s Lighthouse and the National Alliance on Mental Illness will help you learn more about your child’s condition and offer helpful communities to connect with other parents going through the same thing.
5. Reach out for help.
If left untreated, teenage depression can escalate to self-harm or thoughts of suicide. Adams says it’s never too early to seek out help. “It doesn't hurt to utilize trained professionals. This is what they do. This is what they're exposed to every single day.”
When your teen seems depressed, it can be difficult for parents to admit. “As a parent, when you get very emotionally involved it can be hard see the forest through the trees,” says Adams. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help—the best thing you can do for your child is get them the treatment they need.