Understanding Your Teenager’s Emotional Struggles
Most parents understand teenage angst: the sometimes obnoxious independence and defiance, even seemingly random outbursts of anger and frustration over minor annoyances (which, well, are minor to the adult, but to a teen, often feel like a major issue).
If we look at “problematic” issues in teenagers as a pile of dirt, the first 6 feet of that pile are totally normal and nothing to worry about. If you aren’t sure, please get in touch with me. However, when that pile gets to 10 feet high, parents often think there are 10 feet of problems that aren’t normal and must be ‘fixed.’ But it’s not the whole 10 feet (and the teenager isn’t broken)! It’s only the dirt above that first normal 6 feet. That softens the blow a little as it’s less to be worried about. But let’s deal with that excess dirt–in this case, the top 4 feet of it (10 feet minus the normal 6 feet = 4 feet of excess).
Normal Depressive Episodes vs. Clinical Depression
I’m not going to go into painstaking detail about how to diagnose depression. But as I have already said, some degree of it is just a part of normal teen mood swings related to hormones, a developing brain, and increasingly complex thoughts, feelings, and social/academic pressures.
Basically, normal teenage sadness passes without major disruption of life. With more severe depression, you may see increasing isolation from both family and friends, appetite fluctuations (in either direction), dropping grades, loss of interest in things that were once enjoyable, and of course, the Big 3 of depression: sadness, irritability, and anxiety. In extreme cases, you may even notice self-injurious behaviors like cutting, and/or suicidal thoughts (or in very extreme cases, planning or attempts). If you are concerned about immediate danger to your child, call 9-1-1 immediately. In Central Texas, you can also call the MHMR Crisis Hotline at 512-472-HELP. You can also email me, or call me.
Again, most teenage depression is normal and will pass in a few days, or a week. If it persists for more than 2 weeks, please get in touch; it may still be normal, but it’s always a good idea to show them that you care about them and will respond to their pain, even if they think you’re overreacting.
How to Support Your Depressed Teenager
When your teenager seems ready and receptive to chat, try not to lecture them. Instead, look for a green, yellow, or red light to gauge their interest in the conversation. Green means they’re open to talking, yellow means it’s time to wrap up the conversation, and red means you’ve lost their attention and should wrap it up or give them an opportunity to speak. By listening attentively and patiently, you can create a comfortable environment for your teenager to open up to you.
Show Curiosity and Interest
When you get the green light, begin by asking your teenager to help you understand what they are going through. Instead of asking why they are feeling a certain way, try the One-down approach where you ask them to teach you about their experience. This approach sends a comforting message that you care and are paying attention. It may take some time, but your teenager will likely come back to you when they are ready to open up. By showing interest and concern instead of lecturing, you can plant seeds that encourage your teenager to share their feelings with you.
Validate Their Feelings and Link with Them
If your teenager does open up to you, it is important to validate their feelings and let them know that what they are going through is challenging. You don’t have to provide a guaranteed fix, but simply being there to listen and understand can be very helpful. If you have a personal story from your own teenage years that your teenager can relate to, share it briefly. This can help your teenager feel more understood and less alone. If they ask for advice, offer suggestions without being pushy. It’s important to ask if there is anything you can do to help, even if they don’t have an immediate answer.
Encourage and Model a Healthy Lifestyle
Encourage your teenager to be physically active by suggesting activities such as taking the dog for a walk or going on a nature hike together. Exercise is one of the best ways to combat depression. Additionally, it’s important to examine what kinds of foods your teenager is eating. Too many carbohydrates can contribute to depression, so encourage healthy eating habits.
Communicate with Teachers
Get in touch with your teenager’s teachers to see if they have noticed any changes in behavior or academic performance. If your teenager is doing well in school and has a good social life, their moodiness may simply be a result of exhaustion or teenage mood swings.
Be Mindful of Your Parenting Style
Your parenting style can significantly impact your teenager’s behavior. Catching your teenager being bad and punishing them is not an effective approach. Instead, try to focus on catching them being good and rewarding that behavior. Additionally, if you are going through marital problems or a divorce, be mindful of how this is impacting your teenager. Your behavior towards your spouse or ex-spouse can also affect your teenager’s behavior.
Identify and Address Stressors
Finally, take a look at your teenager’s life circumstances to identify any potential stressors. Recent breakups, fights with friends, or the loss of a loved one can all contribute to depression. Listen to your teenager when they discuss these issues and resist the urge to minimize their feelings. Help them identify ways to cope with their stressors and be there to support them.
Remember, there are many ways to support a depressed teenager, and this article only covers a few. By being patient, compassionate, and attentive, you can help your teenager navigate through their depression and build a stronger relationship with them.
Learn more about Counseling for Depression in Austin.
Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s has worked in the helping profession since he started college in 1990. After completing his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, Austin in 1994, he attended the highly-regarded University of Minnesota to earn his Master’s degree in 1997. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is recognized as a Board Approved Supervisor by the State of Texas Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors. Jonathan has completed Level-2 of the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling, and in 1998 received training from the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation in Advanced Critical Incident Stress Management & Debriefing. To learn more about Jonathan’s practice, click here: Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s.