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Help your teen cope with depression for the best chance of recovery

Eight percent of all teens in the United States will suffer from an episode of depression before the age of 18. Depression is the number one cause of suicide, the third most common cause of death in adolescents. Depression left untreated can lead to self‑injuries, risk‑taking behavior, or substance abuse, gravely impacting the future course of a young person's life. The good news is that depression is treatable. Early intervention is crucial in securing the best possible outcome. The first step for parents of a depressed teen is to be able to identify the signs of depression. This can sometimes be a little bit tricky as depression can present somewhat differently in adolescents than adults. It is not always straightforward. That is why contacting a mental health professional is of the utmost importance.

This article will provide some guidelines for being able to identify depression in your teen and help guide you as a parent in setting up appropriate treatment and offering your support.


Do notice if they have a tendency towards isolation

Teens can become experts at concealing their feelings and keeping secrets as they embark on their journey toward independence. Spending hours on end behind closed doors in their bedroom is not atypical for the teenage boy or girl and could be interpreted as expected behavior from a developmental perspective. It is important not to let this behavior remain unnoticed. Be upfront with your teen. Let him know that you believe that he is suffering from depression. Reach out to them expressing your concern over their isolation.

Do recognize changes in mood

Sarcasm, aggression and irritability can easily be ascribed to normal hormonal changes that come along with the challenges of puberty. Yet it is true that depression often manifests itself in terms of anger rather than sadness in the adolescent. Don't mistake moodiness, irritability, acting out and isolation as expected or normal teenage behavior.

Approach your teen in a warm, non‑judgmental way, encouraging him to express his feelings. Be in tune with any changes in behavior, mood or personality. Let your teen know that you are there to support her unconditionally. Encourage your teen to talk about his feelings.

Be especially alert to any indications or manifestations of self harm or violence. Watch for changes in appetite, weight gain or loss, sleep disturbances, lack of motivation, decline in hygiene, sudden loss of interest in favorite activities, low self‑esteem, and plummeting grades.

Do know that teens are often reluctant to open up

Teens often have difficulty articulating their feelings. Don't be surprised if your teen is reluctant to open up, but don't force things. Be patient but persistent. Let your teen know that it is difficult to talk about feelings but that you will help her to sort things out.

Do make a plan

Let your teen know that you have educated yourself about the signs of depression. Let her know that you are arranging for treatment that will help. This type of reassurance can provide the necessary hope and structure most helpful to the adolescent.

Do set up a consultation with your teen's pediatrician

The pediatrician can diagnose and/or rule out any co-occurring medical conditions and make recommendations for further treatment and care. As a first step to help your teen recognize that they may be suffering from depression, a pediatrician can be the authoritative figure you need to convince them they have a problem. They may recommend that your teen seek therapy or follow up with a psychiatrist as well, so that they can diagnose a mental health condition and recommend a course of action or medication.

Don't feel that you are overreacting. If you suspect depression, contact your teen's pediatrician for advice.


Do not delay in contacting a qualified mental health professional

Find a mental health professional who has expertise in conducting a detailed assessment, taking biopsychosocial influences and familial, cultural and environmental stressors into account. A thorough assessment helps a clinician to develop a treatment plan most suited to your teen's individual needs. A treatment plan will most often include a recommendation for psychotherapy and possibly a referral to a pediatric psychiatrist who will assess the value of medication in combination with psychotherapy.

Additional recommendations may include exercise, stress management techniques to alleviate symptoms of anxiety, adding new activities or hobbies into your teen's schedule, coordinating with school counselors or teachers, etc. Also, don’t hesitate to let your teen know that you will support them throughout treatment.

Do not hesitate to let your teen have input into the choice for a therapist

The relationship between the therapist and your teen will be one of the most crucial factors in effecting a positive outcome of treatment. If your teen does not connect with her therapist, listen to her complaints. Provide her with the option of jointly choosing an alternative counselor.

Do not be afraid to be matter-of-fact about the depression

Don’t keep the depression a secret from the other family members. Be matter-of-fact in discussing your teen's depression with the rest of the family while continuing to respect the space and privacy of your teen when it comes to specific confidences you have shared. Ask the other family members to adopt a supportive stance toward the depressed sibling, but don't ask them to put their own lives on hold.

Do not forget to take care of yourself

It can be very tough to watch your loved one going through an episode of depression. Don't neglect to take care of yourself while supporting your teen through this difficult time. Seek outside support if necessary. Join a support group for family members of depressed patients or consult with a mental health professional as needed.

Jumping cartoon

The initial step in helping your teen cope with his/her depression is to recognize the signs. If unsure, err on the side of caution. Go to your teen and express your concerns openly. Let your teen know that you have noticed some changes in him or her and be specific about what you have observed. Let him or her know that these changes are frequently signs of depression.

Teens can feel bewildered about what is happening with them and can experience some initial relief at having an explanation for the chaos that they have been experiencing. Encourage your son or daughter to talk about his/her feelings. Be patient. Be a good listener and adopt an encouraging, warm, non‑judgmental stance. Above all, let your teen know that there is help for depression and that you will arrange for the proper care and support him/her throughout the treatment process. Leave room for your teen to be actively involved in treatment decisions, especially when it comes to selecting a therapist who will be able to establish good rapport.

Don't be afraid to reach out for support for yourself. Contact a qualified licensed mental health professional or join a support group for family members of depressed patients.

More expert advice about Depression

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Susanne Breckwoldt, Ph.D. Licensed Psychologist

Susanne Breckwoldt, Ph.D. is a psychologist practicing in Cresskill, New Jersey and a children's book author. She works with a population of adolescents, adults, couples and families and has special training in hypnosis and EMDR. Dr. Breckwoldt'...

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