When your kids are young, parents are used to swooping in and rescuing them whenever they need help.  As your kids get older and their problems become more complex, you have to transition into more of a supporting role, and that can be difficult.  This is especially true with teens who are struggling with depression.  They need help to get better, but first they have to want that help.

How do you know if your child is depressed?

  • Has she been sad or irritable most of the day, most days in a week for at least two weeks?
  • Has she lost interest in things that she used to really enjoy?
  • Have her eating or sleeping habits changed?
  • Does she have very little energy, very little motivation to do much of anything?
  • Is she feeling worthless, hopeless about her future, or guilty about things that aren't her fault?
  • Have her grades dropped, or is she finding it difficult to concentrate?
  • Has she had thoughts of suicide?  If so it's crucial you have her evaluated by a mental health professional immediately.  If the thoughts are really serious and there is imminent threat, you will ne to take her to an ER.

If your teen shows more than a few of these signs she may have depression that warrants professional attention.  While you can't make her want to get better, there are some things that you as her parent can do.  It starts simply being there for her.

Be Supportive

One of the most important things you can do for your teen is to work on strengthening your relationship.  Try to build empathy and understanding by putting your self in his shoes.  You might be frustrated that he seems down and irritable a lot of the time and doesn't seem to be doing much of anything to help himself.  But if there isn't much in his life that is making him happy, or something intensely disappointing has happened to him, it's understandable that he might avoid things he used to enjoy and retreat to his room.  Depression makes even doing the smallest things more difficult.

Try to validate his emotions, not his unhealthy behavior.  For example, you could say,
It seems as though you have been really down lately.  Is that true?  Make it clear that you want to try to understand what is troubling him without trying to problem solve.

Be compassionately curious with him.  Ask him questions about his mood gently, without being emotional.  Even parents with the best intentions often don't realize that their concern can come across as critical rather than loving.  Do not be judgmental or try to solve his problems, even if you disagree with his point of view.  Listening to him talk about his problems might seem as though you are highlighting the negative, but in fact you are letting him know that you hear him, you see him, and you are trying to understand-not fix him.  People don't like to be fixed.  Listening without judgment will actually make him more likely to view you as ally and someone he can turn to when he is ready to talk.

Try to give him opportunities to do things without being critical of him.  Instead of saying, "Honey, you should really ret up and do something.  How about calling an old friend? you might say, "I'm going to the mall to do an errand.  Let me know if you want to come with me, and maybe we can get lunch together."

For some parents this can feel passive, as though you are not doing enough.  But being there for him and communication your acceptance of him is exactly what he needs from you right now.  It's actually a very active way to strengthen you relationship.

Accentuate the positive

Make sure you are noticing the positive things your teen does, too.  Going to school, holding down a part-time job, doing the dishes or picking up her brother from soccer practice:  These are all good things she is doing, and it's important to recognize them rather than thinking, " This is what she should be doing." We all like to be appreciated and recognized for doing a good job even when it's expected of us.

Helping kids get treatment

Some teens will want to go to therapy when you ask them and some will not.  For those who are resistant, know that they aren't going to suddenly open up to the idea of therapy (or to you) quickly, but you can help guide them towards treatment by opening the door and then waiting patiently for them to walk through it.

If she does want treatment do you homework.  Finding a therapist who is a good fit is extremely important, and making the choice hers will help her feel ownership over her own treatment, which is extremely important to teens and sets the stage for effective therapy.

It is also important to know that there are several different kinds of therapy that might be helpful for your teen, including some well-studied behavioral therapies.  Interpersonal therapy (IPT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and behavioral activation have all been shown to be helpful for teenagers with depression.  Make sure that your child has had a thorough evaluation that includes treatment recommendations to help guide you.

Many teens with depression benefits from medication, such as an anti-depressant.  While therapy alone may be effective with mild to moderate depresson, the best results are usually gained with a combination of medication and therapy.  If medication is a consideration, it is strongly recommended that you make an appointment with a board certified child and adolescent psychiatrist (rather than a general physician) for a consultation.

Keep in mind that therapy usually isn't effective if the person in treatment isn't effective if the person in treatment isn't committed to it, or is doing it to please someone else.  You child should want to get better for himself.

Lastly, it is important to make sure that you're taking care of yourself.  It can be emotionally and physically exhausting to be a parent of someone who is struggling with depression.