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Teenage girl alone dark room depressed

How to help your teen with depression

Study tips
Published 24 Jan, 2023  ·  7-minute read

Feelings of sadness are common in teens, but how can you recognise when this progresses into something more serious, like teen depression? And how do you go about helping teens with depression?

It can be difficult to tell if your teenager has depression, especially if they aren’t overly communicative at the best of times. But there are signs of depression in teens that you can be on the lookout for. We’ll cover some of these in this article.

Providing advice for parents of a depressed teenager is more than just describing what depression looks or sounds like, however. It also involves delving into what causes depression in teens, and how to help a teen with depression.

At the core of supporting your teen with depression is considering their personality. As we explain below, the way depression presents itself varies for different people. Always think on what is ‘normal’ for your teen, and how depression may be impacting their daily life. Teens will require support in different ways.

Let’s find the best way to help your teen with depression.

One in four young people experience a mental disorder, with depression being one of the most common problems.

- Black Dog Institute

What causes depression in teens?

The first step in understanding how to help a teenager with depression is figuring out what might be causing it. Depression in teens can be caused by an array of environmental and social factors, and it can also be hereditary. Here are a few of the common causes of depression in teens:

  • bullying
  • other mental health conditions, disorders or chronic illnesses
  • family history of depression
  • unaccepting or unsupportive home environments
  • drug and alcohol use
  • past or ongoing trauma.

Sometimes the only way to identify what might be causing your teen’s depression is to ask. If they’re being bullied on social media, for example, you may not realise until it starts to have a significant impact on their self-esteem and everyday life.

We go into greater detail on how to have a conversation with your teenager about their depression below.

Teenage girl sits curled on a lounge with her head in her hands, depressed

Signs of depression in teens

So, what does depression look like in a teenager? Professor Vanessa Cobham from UQ’s School of Psychology shared a few signs of depression in teens that you can be on the lookout for, including:

  • reduced interest in engaging in previously enjoyed activities (such as spending time with friends)
  • loss of motivation
  • lowered self-esteem
  • difficulty sleeping
  • changes in appetite and/or weight.

You may also be able to tell if your teenager has depression by considering any changes in their normal behaviour. For example, if your teen is usually very extroverted and social, and starts displaying reclusive behaviour for a prolonged period, this may be a sign that they’re struggling with their mental health.

Depression presents itself differently from person to person. Some people may be experiencing depression but adopt a happy and confident persona when around others. Think about changes in your teen’s personality, everyday activities and behaviours. Do any of these correlate with the signs and symptoms of depression in teens listed above?

How to help a teen with depression

Helping teens with depression is about more than booking them in to speak with a psychologist or see their GP. While this is important, so is your ability to show support at home and in their day-to-day life, alongside securing professional help. Here are a few essential pieces of advice for parents of teens with depression.

A mother and daughter sit talking on a lounge with mugs of tea

Have a conversation

Considering how to talk to a depressed teenager can feel a little like walking on eggshells. You may be tempted to rush to a psychologist straight away, because you’re afraid you’ll only make things worse. However, if your teen isn’t displaying suicidal tendencies (always seek professional help right away if this is the case), try having a conversation with them about how they are feeling and behaving first. This will help you gain some clarity around what they may need a mental health professional to assist them with, and how you can support them.

Vanessa explains that it’s important to pick a calm moment for this discussion, emphasise your support and ensure you don’t come across as judgemental. Steer away from accusatory language such as “you’ve been avoiding the family” or “you're sleeping too much” and focus instead on open-ended questions that encourage your teen to share in a safe space. Try asking them the following:

  • Things seem like they've been difficult for you lately. What’s been on your mind?
  • I’ve noticed you haven’t been feeling up to seeing your friends as much lately. Is there anything you want to talk about?
  • You don’t appear to be enjoying your hobbies as much as you used to. Is how you’re feeling affecting this?

Remember to give them time to respond and try not to barrage them with questions, as this can feel overwhelming and have the opposite effect.

Focus on listening instead of lecturing and remember to keep asking over time as they may not be ready to talk to you in the first instance.

Acknowledge their feelings

Never downplay your teen’s emotions, no matter how trivial they might seem in the big picture. If they share what they’re feeling or what they may be concerned about and you immediately dismiss this, it will cause a rift between you and your teen. It's more than likely that they won’t want to confide in you anymore.

Avoid saying things like “it’s not all that bad” or comparing their grievances with others. By acknowledging their feelings, you’re showing them that you take them seriously. Even if you don’t understand or empathise, the important thing is that your teen feels heard and supported.

Verbally acknowledging your teen’s feelings may sound a little like “that sounds really tough” or “I’m sorry you’ve been having such a hard time”. It might look like you nodding to show you’re listening or reaching out to comfort your teen in a way that’s natural to your relationship.

Vanessa explains that it may also be appropriate to validate their feelings. She suggests this may sound like “I can imagine that if I were in that situation, I might feel quite worried as well”. This show of empathy may help your teen to feel further supported.

A mother hugs her depressed teenage daughter

Find professional help

If your teen is experiencing ongoing depression, it may be clinical. Clinical depression is also sometimes referred to as major depression or major depressive disorder. It differs from situational depression, which is often caused by a major change in lifestyle such as moving town. Situational depression tends to resolve itself over time, perhaps once a person has moved past it or adjusted to the major life event causing it. Clinical depression, however, is longer-lasting and more severe.

If your teen has been displaying ongoing symptoms of depression that are impacting severely on their day-to-day life, you should seek assistance from a mental health professional or GP. Vanessa says it’s better to err on the side of ‘too early’ if you’re unsure whether it’s time to find professional help.

“If your child is experiencing persistent anxiety or depression such that these feelings are causing significant distress and/or interference in day-to-day functioning (e.g. your child is beginning to refuse to go to school; spending all day in bed due to lack of motivation and feelings of sadness), you should consider seeking help.”

You may wish to speak with a health professional about various therapies or medication. Vanessa says medications for mental health should always be prescribed and monitored by a psychiatrist. When it comes to anti-depressants, she provides the following advice:

“Before commencing anti-depressants, it is important that a child/adolescent have a comprehensive medical review to rule out alternative possible causes for their symptoms and to ensure that there are no contra-indications for the use of the anti-depressant.”

Include your teen in discussions about what type of professional help will benefit them most. Be sure to talk over the pros and cons of each pathway to seeking assistance with their depression, and respect their opinions, concerns and feelings regarding this.

Looking for a health professional in your area who specialises in helping teens with depression? Beyond Blue’s national health professional directories is a useful resource.

A teenage boy sits on a lounge talking to a counsellor with a clipboard

Encourage positive lifestyle changes

While instigating small lifestyle changes for your teen may not ‘cure’ depression, these acts, combined with professional health advice or medication, can significantly improve quality of life. Pick a few of the following to focus on and try making small but impactful changes around the home that will support your teen living with depression. You could try:

  • introducing screen-free family time at the dinner table
  • organising a healthy meal plan for the whole family
  • encouraging your teen to get outside and go for a walk or engage in sports
  • suggesting your teen learns a new skill or finds a creative outlet.

Want to promote positive mental health for the entire family? Peruse our list of mental health apps and podcasts. Start a mental health challenge, listen to a podcast together or take part in group meditation.

Stay in the know

Keep reading, seeking advice and trialling new ways of helping teens with depression. Just keep in mind that there’s a lot of literature out there claiming to be the best teen depression resources. Remember only to take advice from reliable sources and check any books you read are not outdated. Keep an open conversation with your teen about your findings. Together, you can find the approach to treating depression that’s best for their needs.

Concerned your teen’s relationships may be affecting their mental health? Read about healthy teenage relationships and what to do when things turn sour.

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