Depression is very damaging when left untreated, so don’t wait and hope that the symptoms will go away. Even if you’re unsure that depression is the issue, the troublesome behaviors and emotions you’re seeing in your adolescent are signs of a problem. Whether or not that problem turns out to be depression, it still needs to be addressed—the sooner the better.
The first thing you should do if you suspect depression is to talk to your adolescent about it. In a loving and non-judgmental way, share your concerns with your adolescent. Let her know what specific signs of depression you’ve noticed and why they worry you. Then encourage your child to open up about what she is going through.
Here are some very specific steps to follow:
• Avoid the blame game. It can be easy to blame yourself or another family member for your adolescent’s depression, but it only adds to an already stressful situation. Furthermore, depression is normally caused by a number of factors, so it’s unlikely—except in the case of abuse or neglect—that any loved one is “responsible”.
• Be open with the family. Don’t tiptoe around the issue of adolescent depression in an attempt to “protect” the other kids. Children know when something is wrong. When left in the dark, their imaginations will often jump to far worse conclusions. Be open about what is going on and invite your kids to ask questions and share their feelings.
• Be understanding. Living with a depressed adolescent can be difficult and draining. At times, you may experience exhaustion, rejection, despair, aggravation, or any other number of negative emotions. During this trying time, it’s important to remember that your child is not being difficult on purpose. Your adolescent is suffering, so do your best to be patient and understanding.
• Don’t give up if your adolescent shuts you out at first. Talking about depression can be very tough for adolescents. Be respectful of your child’s comfort level while still emphasizing your concern and willingness to listen.
• Don’t try to talk adolescents out of their depression, even if their feelings or concerns appear silly or irrational to you. Simply acknowledge the pain and sadness they are feeling. If you don’t, they will feel like you don’t take their emotions seriously.
• Encourage physical activity. Encourage your adolescent to stay active. Exercise can go a long way toward relieving the symptoms of depression, so find ways to incorporate it into your adolescent’s day. Something as simple as walking the dog or going on a bike ride can be beneficial.
• Encourage social activity. Isolation only makes depression worse, so encourage your adolescent to see friends and praise efforts to socialize. Offer to take your adolescent out with friends or suggest social activities that might be of interest, such as sports, after-school clubs, or an art class.
• Learn about depression. Just like you would if your child had a disease you knew very little about, read up on depression so that you can be your own “expert.” The more you know, the better equipped you’ll be to help your depressed adolescent. Encourage your adolescent to learn more about depression as well. Reading up on their condition can help depressed adolescents realize that they’re not alone and give them a better understanding of what they’re going through.
• Let depressed adolescents know that you’re there for them, fully and unconditionally. Hold back from asking a lot of questions (adolescents don’t like to feel patronized or crowded), but make it clear that you’re ready and willing to provide whatever support they need.
• Reach out for support. Get the emotional support you need. Reach out to friends, join a support group, or see a therapist of your own. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed, frustrated, helpless, or angry. The important thing is to talk about how your adolescent’s depression is affecting you, rather than bottling up your emotions.
• Remember the siblings. Depression in one child can cause stress or anxiety in other family members, so make sure “healthy” kids are not ignored. Siblings may need special individual attention or professional help of their own to handle their feelings about the situation.
• Resist any urge to criticize or pass judgment once your adolescent begins to talk. The important thing is that your child is communicating. Avoid offering unsolicited advice or ultimatums as well.
• Stay involved in treatment. Make sure your adolescent is following all treatment instructions and going to therapy. It’s especially important that your child takes any prescribed medication as instructed. Track changes in your adolescent’s condition, and call the doctor if depression symptoms seem to be getting worse.
• Take care of yourself. In order to help a depressed adolescent, you need to stay healthy and positive yourself, so don’t ignore your own needs. The stress of the situation can affect your own moods and emotions, so cultivate your well–being by eating right, getting enough sleep, and making time for things you enjoy.
If your adolescent claims nothing is wrong, but has no explanation for what is causing the depressed behavior, you should trust your instincts. Remember that denial is a strong emotion. Furthermore, adolescents may not believe that what they’re experiencing is the result of depression. If you see depression’s warning signs, seek professional help. Neither you nor your adolescent is qualified to either diagnosis depression or rule it out, so see a doctor or psychologist who can.