Therapy Blog

Help! Teenage Depression!

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Most parents understand teenage angst, the sometimes obnoxious independence and defiance, even seemingly random outbursts of anger and frustration over minor annoyances (well, it’s minor to the adult . . . to a teen, it often feels like a major issue).

If we look at “problematic” issues in teenagers as a pile of dirt (I know, there are other metaphors . . . ), the first 6 feet of that pile is totally normal and nothing to worry about. If you aren’t sure, please get in touch with me. Trouble is, when that pile gets to 10 feet high, parents often think there are 10 feet of problems that aren’t normal and that 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. diagnosable 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 a 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.  Also, Email me here, or Click here to call me.

Again, most teenage depression is normal and will pass in a few days, or a week. If it persists 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 do I help my depressed teen?

Shhhh . . . listen to them

First of all, and most teens really appreciate me saying this, do NOT sit them down and lecture them; you’ll be tuned out within a couple of minutes. Instead, look for a Green light, Yellow light, or Red light. Green is when they seem ready and receptive to chat a bit. Yellow means it’s time to wrap it up. Red means you’ve lost their attention and they are annoyed with you and you should definitely wrap it up, or see if perhaps they want to do some of the talking (parents slip into lecturing instead of listening from a very loving place, but teens still get annoyed with it).

Then be curious, show interest

Once you have the Green light, start by asking them to help you understand what they are going through; avoid questions like “Why are you so grumpy? Why are you sad? Why . . . ? Why. . . ? Why . . . ?”  Instead, use the One-down approach where you ask them to ‘teach you,’ “Help me understand what’s going on.” They may say “nothing,” roll their eyes and walk away. That’s ok. You have sent a very comforting message that you are paying attention and that you care enough to ask. It may be later that day or night, or even a few days later, but fairly often, they will come back to you when they are ready and find a way to open up. It’s about planting seeds by showing interest and concern instead of ramming lectures down their throats (Teenagers: You’re welcome!).

Validate their feelings. Link with them

Now if they do take the opportunity to talk with you, please understand that you don’t have to give them a guaranteed fix. Just validating that what they are going through is really tough is a good place to start. You may even have a story from when you were a teenager that they can relate to, but keep it somewhat short and to the point. They may ask how you got through it. That’s a Green light. Ask them if there is anything you can do to help. They may not have an answer, but again, the offer will mean a lot even if they don’t show it. And please, try not to be too offended if they open up to your spouse or your ex-.

Encourage and model a healthy lifestyle (exercise, hydration & nutrition)

See if you can get them moving physically. . . have them walk the dog, offer to go on a nature hike with them, etc. Exercise is one of the best ways to combat depression. And speaking of healthy behaviors, you may want to examine what kinds of foods they are eating. Too many carbohydrates can contribute to depression, and teens LOVE carbs.

Talk to their teachers

Get in touch with teachers and ask if they are seeing anything at school. If they are social at school, doing well with grades, and not getting in trouble, then what you are seeing may be exhaustion and/or normal teenage moodiness.

Don’t be part of the problem

Take a close look at your home life. Eighty percent of behavior change in teenagers is directly related to behavior change in their parents. So if you are recently divorced/separated, or are having marital troubles, your teenager may be showing signs of the distress. It is critical that you and your spouse/ex- be as cordial as possible.

Also look at your parenting style. If it is based on catching them being bad, then punishing them, you may be seeing the results of that method. While immediate, natural consequences are extremely important, you MUST also put a substantial focus on catching them being good and rewarding that behavior. Please see the Parenting post and the Co-Parenting post for more details about why this balanced method is so important.

Look at what their stressors are

Finally, and this article does not list every single thing you can do, look at their life circumstances. Has there been a recent breakup? Are they fighting with a close friend? Has a friend or family member died? Moved away? Perhaps they are overwhelmed by the college application process or standardized tests like the SAT, ACT or your local state’s mandated exams. Listen to them when they discuss these things. Resist the urge to explain why it’s not that big of a deal–remember, to them it IS a big deal. When you show them that you take them seriously and that you understand that things do feel overwhelming, you may be able to help them see how to soften things a bit.

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