As a parent, you want to see your child healthy and happy. But it’s not really within your control. What is within your control is how you respond when you see your child struggling. So here are some suggestions that might help, when you suspect your teen might be depressed.
1) Know the signs of depression.
A lot of it is about change from a baseline. So if you notice that your teenager has undergone a significant and persistent change in mood (could look like sadness, or irritability, or anger), that’s the first clue.
Then you want to look for changes in eating, sleeping, and socializing. Do they seem to be withdrawing from their friends? Do they seem more aloof or secretive?
2) If you suspect something’s wrong, address it right away.
Sometimes parents want to wait and see what’ll happen. “It’ll just work itself out,” they rationalize. They’re nervous to get involved and say the wrong thing. Sometimes they’re scared themselves by what they’re observing. It’s not uncommon to go into denial and want to downplay the potential symptoms.
But when your child is suffering, time is of the essence. It’s important to convey that you’re aware and concerned. Otherwise, your teenager can feel even more alone.
Addressing potential symptoms doesn’t mean assuming you’re right about what you’re seeing. It means asking your teenager if anything’s different, if anything’s wrong. Make sure your tone is supportive and empathetic, not accusing. Your teenager might already feel ashamed or scared by what he/she is feeling.
Your job is to help your child make sense of what might be happening, and to reassure that depression is common and treatable. Let them know that they are not alone, even if it feels that way; you’ll be there every step of the way.
3) If your teenager confirms something is wrong, make a plan to address it.
That doesn’t necessarily mean therapy. It could mean that your child commits to taking regular walks, or calling friends more often, or reaching out to you when he/she is having negative feelings. There are self-help books written for teenagers, like Bev Cobain’s “When Nothing Matters.”
4) If your child is doing self-harming behaviors like cutting, or expresses suicidal thoughts, it’s time to seek professional help.
You could start with a therapist who specializes in adolescents, and that person could assess and possibly refer for medication. Or if the depression seems severe, try scheduling both appointments (one with a therapist for talk therapy, and one with a psychiatrist to consult about medication.) Because the wait to see a psychiatrist, especially, can be long (4-6 weeks, usually, and it’s often longer at this time of year), you might want to get scheduling right away.
5) Realize that it’s not your fault.
Sometimes parents blame themselves for their children’s problems. Yet there are a lot of potential causes of depression, and self-blame won’t help you help your child.
What’s important is to learn how best to support him or her, and maybe how to improve your relationship going forward. Don’t get lost in denial or self-flagellation. This is a time to get active and informed, so that you can be a compassionate, supportive resource for your child.
Depressed teen image available from Shutterstock.