Teen Depression: How to Help

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Man sitting on bench with head resting in his hands showing signs of depression or sadness.

If you have a teen who is struggling with depression or despair, you are not alone. In a recent
study of parents with children under the age of 18, over half (53%) of the parents reported that
their son or daughter faced new or worsening mental health challenges during the pandemic.
Among the top mental health issues reported by parents were anxiety and depression. Mental
health challenges among youth were already on the rise before the COVID-19 health pandemic.
Depression is a common but serious mental health disorder. If your teen is struggling, as a
parent or caring adult you want to help but may feel unsure about exactly how to intervene.
Below are some signs that indicate your teen might be struggling with depression and how to

How to Help Your Teen Recognize the Signs

The first step to supporting a teen who is depressed is recognizing the signs. Depression in teens
can be difficult to recognize since it mimics the typical moodiness and grouchiness often
associated with adolescence. Irritability is normal. Sadness is normal. We are not meant to be
happy all of the time. Feeling down from time to time due to any number of life challenges is
part of being human.

However, depression is different in that it is a sadness that just doesn’t go away. It lingers. And
it can impact different areas of your teen’s life. Persistent feelings of sadness, overwhelm,
combined with withdrawal from family and close friends is a significant sign that may indicate
that your teenage son or daughter may be dealing with depression.

The causes of depression vary. Depression can be caused by a loss or separation from a loved
one, a traumatic event, relationship problems, and multiple or chronic stressful life events.
Likewise, depression can occur due to a chemical imbalance. Either way, depression is a warning
sign that something in your teen’s life has to be addressed.

Symptoms and signs of depression manifest differently for everyone. However, common signs of
teen depression includes the following:

  • Excessive crying
  • Dramatic mood swings
  • Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sleep disturbance or Irregular sleep patterns
  • Intense anger or irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating or slowed thinking
  • Poor school performance
  • Physical complaints such as headaches, stomach pain, or digestive problems
  • Low self-esteem or self-confidence
  • Self-harm
  • Thoughts or gestures of suicide

Respond with Empathy

Managing a season of intense depression can be hard for your teen as well as the entire family.
Keeping lines of communication open is important. And, your response matters. As is the case
with so many parenting situations, having a teen with depression can offer many wonderful
ways to connect with your teen. One powerful way to connect is through empathy. Empathy is
often described as the ability to consciously recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and
feelings of another person. The ability to demonstrate support and understanding of someone
else’s experience is critical for establishing relationships. Practicing empathy, which can be a
learned skill, is key to connection which helps to promote healing in a teen struggling with

Humans feel better when they feel understood. Conveying empathy isn’t always easy, but it’s
change-inducing. Displaying empathy has several components:

  • Check-in with your teen to see how they are managing life.
  • Actively listen without interruption.
  • Validate any feelings they experience.
  • Match their vocal tone and energy level as much as possible
  • Lastly, offer support.

Also consider some of these responses:

  • “You’re feeling sad because your best friend moved / relationship ended.”
  • “I’m so sorry you’re hurting.”
  • “I know you are struggling right now and it may be hard to explain what you’re going
    through. I’d like to help if I can. And if writing it down feels easier, please do that. I’m
    here either way.”
  • “I love you. I’m here whenever you need me.”
  • “Is there anyone that I can contact that you’d feel more comfortable talking to?”

Different responses will impact each person differently so feel free to experiment with what you
think might be best received. Chances are that whatever you say with empathy and compassion
will make a difference.

Encourage Creativity

Did you know that creativity does wonders for mental health and well-being? From a brain
health standpoint, studies have found that creativity has many positive mental health benefits.
Creativity not only increases positive emotions but also reduces stress and symptoms of
depression. Additionally, creativity boosts imagination. Spending time on creative activities
typically requires a period of mindful focus and attention. Some psychological researchers
describe this state as being in “flow.” Engaging in creative pursuits allows your teen to
temporarily disconnect from stressful sources and improves their overall brain health.

Whether your teen or student is interested in drawing, painting, or writing poetry or novels, any
of these activities help to foster creativity. Knowing this is important because it can help you to
encourage him or her to engage in activities they already love or explore new hobbies such as
composing music, gardening, event planning, learning how to ballroom dance, or even starting a
YouTube channel featuring their favorite topic!

Help Them Connect with Their People

Research has shown that consistent support from family and friends is one of the most powerful
ways to decrease the effects of depression and despair. As a therapist, I cannot emphasize
enough the power of community when it comes to managing any mental health challenge.
The problem is that when we feel depressed, the desire to isolate can become stronger than the
desire to connect. Even though your teen can acknowledge that connection will help, it’s more
tempting to disconnect. Isolation is the worst thing they can do.

Encourage your teen or student to share their experiences with at least one person. The right
person (s) can help your teen acknowledge that they are far from alone in the struggles that they
face. Help them to seek out a support group at church or school or even online. Ask a
therapist for recommendations if needed. Once your teen finds someone to connect with, he or
she may be surprised at how much better they feel after sharing their struggles with others who
may have experienced something similar and who can listen without judgment.

Seek Professional Support

Depression can be tough on the entire family. However, it is very treatable particularly when
addressed early. Left untreated for too long, depression can lead to many other mental health
challenges that impact your teen’s social and academic functioning. Severe depression could
eventually lead to suicidal thoughts.

While dealing with depression can create a host of barriers and limitations for your teen, I want
you to know that healing is possible. Oftentimes, the best relief comes through therapy with a
qualified professional. If you suspect that your teen may be struggling with depression, know
that access to quality treatment is available. Please reach out to a pediatrician or a licensed
mental health professional for an evaluation.

By Chinwé Williams, Ph.D., LPC, NCC who is a licensed clinical therapist in Roswell, Ga specializing
in adolescent, young adult, family, and women’s mental and emotional wellness. Website:
www.meaningfulsolutionscounseling.com. She is the co-author of “Seen: Healing Despair and
Anxiety in Kids and Teens Through the Power of Connection,” You may order it here.