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How to Talk to Teens About Depression

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Talk About Depression

Teen depression is becoming increasingly troubling. It seems our teens are suffering in higher numbers than in the past, even when taking into account the typical mood swings and drama that accompany the teen years.

While parents and teachers are well aware of the vulnerabilities experienced during adolescence, stoked by hormonal changes, peer pressure, social issues—especially bullying and social media issues, and academic stress— these days it feels as if a heavier emotional burden is weighing our teens down.

So, what is a parent to do or say when they suspect their teenager is grappling with emotional struggles or depression? It is one of the most difficult things to discuss with teens, as many times they will reflexively just shut parents out. They may be uncomfortable opening up to a parent or become annoyed that the parent seems to be prying into their personal life.

Regardless of how they perceive your concern, the truth is that teens would much prefer a parent show concern about their well-being than to ignore them and leave the teen to his or her own devices. Teens both need and desire parenting.

To discuss some healthy ways to open up a dialogue with a teen about their mental wellness, it is important to first understand what risk factors there are for potentially developing a depressive disorder, and the warning signs to pay attention to.

About Teen Depression

Teen depression is to be taken seriously. According to the National Institute on Mental Health, approximately 3.2 million teens ages 12-17 have experienced at least one depressive episode. Among teen girls, one in five has experienced clinical depression. Of the teens who are depressed, 71% of them experience severe impairment from the mental health disorder, meaning their daily life is profoundly impacted by the effects of the depression.

Risk factors for a teen potentially developing depression might include family history of depression, hormones, past trauma, brain chemistry, and underdeveloped coping skills. And some teens’ personalities are just more prone to depression.

Warning Signs of Teen Depression

While it may be tempting to pass off a teen’s persistent funk as age-related angst, there are some very clear signs and symptoms of depression that should not be ignored. These might include the following behavioral and emotional signs:

  • Loss of interest in hobbies and extracurricular activities they once enjoyed
  • Irritability, frustration, agitation
  • Mood swings
  • Angry outbursts that seem over the top
  • Fatigue, apathy, listlessness
  • Feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • Feelings of guilt, shame, or worthlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering things
  • Sleep problems, either insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Slowed cognitive functioning, movements
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Self-harming behaviors
  • Decline in academic performance
  • Loss of interest in hygiene or appearance
  • Skipping school
  • Change in eating habits, weight gain or loss
  • Overreaction to any criticism
  • Substance abuse
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions

When a cluster of these symptoms persists for more than two weeks, it is advisable to have the teen seen by a doctor. The signs of depression may be due to an undiagnosed medical condition, which should be ruled out first. If no health issue is detected, referral to a mental health provider will follow.

Understand that to a depressed teen, a matter that adults know will pass and resolve itself is highly exaggerated in their mind. Keep the lines of communication open, take any talk of death or suicide seriously, and get immediate help if you suspect the teen is considering suicide—do not leave them.

How to Begin a Conversation About Depression With Your Teen

If you recognize warning signs of depression in your teen it is best not to delay a conversation with them. As any parent of a teen knows, finding just the right moment or opportunity to open a dialogue with the teen is a daunting challenge. Teens may rebuff any attempt to gain insights about their emotional state. They may act out in anger if they see it as prying. So how do you discuss depression with a teenager? Here are some helpful tips for getting the conversation rolling.

  1. Avoid confrontation. Instead, quietly mention that you have noticed they seem sad, and then ask if they want to talk about it. Extend an invitation. Expect the teen to turn down this offer, but they will walk away knowing you noticed the changes in them, are concerned about them, and are open to chatting about their issues.
  2. Select a comfortable setting. Sometimes, just being in the kitchen at the same time, putting a meal together, is a good time to talk. Teens seem to be more responsive to chatting about personal matters when they are in motion versus being face-to-face, which may feel confrontational. Walking, driving, playing sports, or cooking are activities that lend themselves to conversing.
  3. Be there for them. Parents are over-scheduled and may be home fewer hours than they once were. Teens may be left to navigate difficult emotional trials without any parent input or guidance. If you suspect your child is struggling with social or academic issues, make a point to be home more and be available to them, which in turn provides opportunities for discussions.
  4. Acknowledge their feelings. If your teen is open to talking about their feelings, do not try to talk them out of what they are sharing with you. Resist the impulse to “make it all better” for them with pat responses. Listen intently and ask insightful, thoughtful questions to delve deeper. Validate their feelings, even though you may think they are being silly or overdramatic. Let them know you have been there and understand.
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Dr. Arastou Aminzadeh is a triple board certified physician in psychiatry, child and adolescent psychiatry, and addiction medicine, and is the co-founder of BNI Treatment Centers in Agoura Hills, California. Dr. Aminzadeh is a fellow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine and also a fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.