Talking to Your Teen About Mental Health and Depression (Without Saying ‘Mental’ or ‘Depression’)

Day to day ups and downs are a normal part of adolescence, making it difficult to distinguish between normal teenage moodiness and depression. Teens might not always be able to articulate what they’re going through, and they might not want to talk about it to you, but starting the conversation will help to protect their mental well-being.

Rates of teen depression increase sharply during adolescence, peaking around 16 years old. The exact reasons for the rise in depression during this time is unknown but it’s widely accepted that a number of factors contribute, including school transitions, academic and social stress and hormonal changes. Add to this their developmental goals of figuring out who they are, where they fit in and establishing their independence and it’s clear that teens have a lot going on. 

The Conversation That Will Help Protect Your Teen

One of the best things you can do for your teen in your life is to let them him or her know that you’re available to talk on their terms.  Here are some ideas for how to make that happen:

  1. Let them see you.

    Let them know you’re there for them unconditionally and whenever they want – no limits. Be careful not to ask too many questions. You don’t want them to feel crowded or patronised.

  2. Put the invite out there.

    Sometimes starting the conversation is the hardest part. Here are a few ideas to get things started:

    • ‘Are you okay? I’m here if you ever want to talk.’
    • ‘It’s really normal to feel stressed/ cranky/ sad/ tired sometimes but if it gets to the point where you’re feeling like that all the time we should talk about it. You don’t have to feel like that and there are ways to feel better.’
    • ‘You seem a bit down/ stressed/ tired/ sad lately. Is that how you’re feeling at the moment?’ Then, depending on the answer, ‘Would you like to talk about it?’ or ‘Well I’m here if you ever need to talk.’ 
  3. Validate them.

    Casually acknowledge that high school can be tough and that it’s all part of the gig. Acknowledge the things that might be going on – ‘I know that you want to do well so it’s not surprising that you might feel the pressure of school/ staying on the team/ staying with the crowd. Everyone’s going through the same thing so there might be some crazy stuff that happens with your friends. It’s pretty normal. I’m here if you ever want to talk.

  4. Give them an easy out.

    Have the duration of a car trip as the time limit so they know there is an easy end to any difficult conversation and that they have control. Let them know that you will only talk until you pull into the driveway and then they can decide whether or not to keep the conversation going. It’s completely up to them – no questions or argument from you. ‘Do you think we can talk about how you’re travelling. Let’s do it like this. Let’s chat until we pull into the driveway and then I promise we’ll talk about something else if you want to. Totally up to you.’

  5. Your physical presence can make a difference.

    This can depend on the teen and the situation. Sometimes your teen might respond better if you avoid eye contact. Try starting the conversation in the car (this is a favourite of mine) or while you’re doing something else (like cooking dinner) rather than when sitting down and facing them. Then there might be other times when they’ll appreciate the one on one close attention from you. I’ve found that my kids tend to open up when I go in and sit on the edge of the bed just before they go to sleep. When it’s late and dark outside, the rest of the world seems a bit more removed – no distractions, no expectations. They won’t always talk of course – sometimes they’ll have nothing to say, or they might not feel like talking – but if they’re going to talk, this seems to be the time they do. 

  6. Be gentle but persistent and available but not intrusive.

    Your teen might not open up straight away – and that’s okay. Keep trying but be mindful of pushing too hard. It’s a tricky line this one. The main thing is to keep making yourself available for when they’re ready.

  7. Don’t try to talk them out of their depression.

    Even if their thinking seems irrational or their thoughts trivial, it isn’t that way to them. Validate them, ‘It’s bothering you isn’t it,’ or ‘I can see how upset you are,’ so they know they can come to you again.

Teenage Depression: The Warning Signs

Knowing the warning signs is important because with early detection plenty can be done.

If you’re not sure whether the teen in your life is depressed or just going through the usual growing pains that come with adolescence, consider the duration and severity of the symptoms and how different your teen is acting from his or her usual self.

Teenage depression can look similar or very different to depression in adults. The usual signs of depression are: 

  • mood changes – sadness or irritability
  • a sense of hopelessness
  • tearfulness or crying
  • withdrawal from social and family relationships
  • loss of interest in activities
  • changes in sleep habits – sleeping more or less, change in waking times (later, earlier, during the night)
  • changes in appetite and eating habits
  • restlessness
  • feelings of worthlessness and guilt
  • lack of enthusiasm or motivation
  • tiredness and fatigue
  • difficulty concentrating
  • suicidal thoughts

For teens the warning signs can look different to this:

  • They may be negative, cranky, irritable, angry, easily frustrated or prone to outbursts. Often, depressed teens come across primarily as irritable and cranky, more than sad.
  • They may complain of aches and pains (such as headaches or tummy aches) for which there is no medical explanation. 
  • They may feel misunderstood or highly sensitive to criticism. Because of their feelings of worthlessness, depressed teens can be extremely sensitive to failure, rejection or criticism. Overachievers are particularly vulnerable.
  • They might withdraw from some, but not all, of their relationships. Depressed adults tend with pull away from relationships generally but the withdrawal is not as clear in teens. They might pull away from some and keep others, start mixing with a different crowd or just pull away from their parents.
  • There may be problems at school. Difficulty concentrating and low energy may lead to attendance problems, poorer grades and frustration with school work in previously good students.
  • Drug and alcohol abuse.
  • Low self-esteem that might play out as expressions of ugliness, shame, unworthiness and failure.
  • They may spend excessive time on the computer.
  • They may engage in risky behaviour – recklessness, drinking, unsafe sex.

Remember that these warning signs can look like a normal part of adolescence and in many cases that’s exactly what it will be. The symptoms exist on a spectrum and the main thing is to be alive to the duration and severity of the symptoms and the departure from whatever is ‘normal’ for your teen.

If You Suspect Your Teen is Depressed

  • The most important thing is to let them know that depression and anxiety is treatable. The sense of helplessness that comes with depression doesn’t only touch those who are struggling with depression, but also those who love them. Know that even if it doesn’t seem as though the things you are doing are making a difference – they are. See here for ways to support your teen if he or she is struggling with depression. 
  • Things can change and they won’t always feel the way they do today. Let them know this. It’s critical and will make a difference.
  • If there’s any chance your teen might be suicidal, ask them directly if they are having thoughts of suicide. Many people avoid asking the question for fear it will put the idea into their head, but it won’t. It might be the most important question you ask them. If they are suicidal, help them seek professional help straight away through a counsellor, doctor or hospital. To find a suicide helpline in your country, see suicide.org or IASP (International Association for Suicide Prevention).
  • Help them to challenge the negative thinking that contributes to depression. See here for effective ways to do this.
  • Exercise can protect against depression and for mild to moderate depression, exercise causes the same changes in the brain as antidepressants. A 20-30 minute walk five times a week will make a difference.
  • Have your teen assessed by a doctor to determine whether or not medication is appropriate. Medication can be very effective but the effects of antidepressants on the adolescent brain aren’t fully known. Close monitoring is important particularly in the first two months of treatment to pick up any worsening of symptoms, suicidal thinking or further changes in mood or behaviour. If medication is recommended, it should always be used as part of wider treatment plan that includes counselling (to equip them with the skills to protect themselves from depression) and lifestyle factors (such as diet, exercise, mindfulness). Medication isn’t a magic bullet and changes generally won’t be seen for at least a few of weeks. 
  • Understand that depression is physiological. It’s NOT a deficiency in personality or character. Living with a depressed teen might expose you to rejection, conflict, despair and extreme sadness yourself. Living with someone who is depressed requires a heroic effort from those who love them. Understand that your teen is still the child you’ve always known and they aren’t pushing you away or hurting you on purpose. They’re hurting. It’s just what depression does.
  • Do whatever you can to accommodate your teen socially. One of the symptoms of depression is withdrawal from relationships, but isolation will make their depression worse. Anything you can do to support them in maintaining friends or getting out will be important. 
  • Be patient and don’t compare. Depression can take aim at anybody. It is not a reflection on parenting or personality. The most loving, involved parents can have a teen with depression. It’s chemical. It’s important for your own sake that you don’t compare yourself or your family to others. Your teen will come back. Be patient and don’t be disheartened by temporary setbacks – it’s a normal part of the recovery.

And finally …

I’ve yet to meet a parent who isn’t racked with self-doubt now and then, wondering if they’re getting it right. I do it regularly. As in often. Adolescence seems particularly adept at taking any self-doubts we have and flourishing them to spectacular proportions.

Whether your teen is depressed or not, if you are arming yourself with information and making yourself available, know that you’re doing what they need you to do. They’re lucky to have you. Deep down inside them, whether they show you or not, they know it too.

6 Comments

Zoe C

Thank you for reminding me that I should always validate my daughter’s feelings and acknowledge the things she’s been going through. I have noticed that my usually cheerful child has been too moody and down these days and I’m afraid that her high school life is pressuring her too much. It might be better if I can bring up counseling in our next conversation and see if she wants to do it.

Reply
Gooden Center

The younger generation of millennials are experiencing a much higher risk for mental health issues than previous generations. Levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts are becoming problematically high for today’s teens. While there may be many factors causing these issues, experts believe that more millennials struggle with perfectionism and elevated expectations which can lead to depression.

Reply
Valeri S

This article (and the symptoms link) was very helpful. We are so very concerned about our 15-year old daughter. Thank you.

Reply
Karen Young

You’re very welcome. If you are at all concerned, I would really encourage you to speak with a doctor or a counsellor. I understand how frightening it can be to see your child in pain. Know that you don’t have to do this on your own.

Reply
Adrienne

I found this article extremely helpful as it gives me some tools to recognize when my teen is just plain sad and in a funk or whether there is something deeper and darker happening. More importantly it helps to validate that our child’s pain/sadness can also give us intense pain and self blame and that we must actively try to “shake off” so we can be present and offer help and support. Life can get hard navigating through not only our own personal range of issues and accompaning emotions, but riding the waves of ups and downs of our beloved teen(s)and trying to help and soothe or just be there for them
(or recognize when professional help should be consideredfor the parent and/or teen). Thank you for clues and advice as we navigate our own lives and those of our family members.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Adrienne you’re so right – between our own issues and theirs, it can be a tough to know exactly what’s going on sometimes. I’m pleased the article was helpful for you. It sounds as though your teen is in wonderful hands.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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