The teenage years are filled with phenomenal changes, physically, emotionally and socially. It is a period where family relationships must adjust to new dynamics. The sweet, easy-going child you used to know is still there, but now also moody, confused, defiant, and prone to reckless behaviour and excessive sleep. Teenagers want to spread their wings and develop their own styles, identities and personalities. They crave independence from their parents. But for over a year now, the pandemic has injected restrictions that go against the grain of adolescent lifestyles and behaviour. Their daily routine has been upended, social life stunted, and your teenager is now locked up in close quarters with parents and siblings! For some households, all of this has created the perfect storm, triggering an increase in mental health problems. Parents can’t decipher whether their teen is depressed or simply transitioning naturally through adolescence.
Depression in Teenagers
Depression is a persistent mood disorder that often manifests itself when a person’s resiliency to cope with life events gets depleted. Parents should not underestimate the impact of ongoing lockdowns and the subsequent prolonged stress it imposes on the teenage psyche. Typical signs of depression include, but are not limited to:
- excessive crying and sadness that persist for more than two weeks
- loss of interest and motivation in activities they enjoyed previously
- challenges in school that cause them to miss classes or receive poor grades
- changes in weight or eating habits, skipping meals or eating more frequently
- withdrawal and isolation
- violence and/or aggression
- suicidal ideation, perhaps talking or ‘joking’ about killing themselves
Every parent wants to do right by their child, especially when they are ill, mentally or physically. If you suspect your child has depression, the first step is to reach out to your physician or pediatrician for an assessment.
Treating a Depressed Teenager
Fortunately, we now have decades of evidence-based data that makes depression a treatable medical condition. Your physician may recommend psychotherapy and sometimes combine it with medications.
Psychotherapy treatments are a form of talk therapy and have proven to be extremely effective for depression. Most teenagers struggle with understanding and naming their feelings. This inability to process their emotions creates a pressure cooker inside them with no outlet. A trained therapist can give your child a safe and non-judgemental space to identify and express their feelings. Furthermore, treatments like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can arm your child with skills they can use for a lifetime to replace unhelpful thoughts with positive messages to improve their perspective of everyday life occurrences.
Physicians sometimes prescribe medications to support psychotherapy treatments. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are a class of antidepressant medications that regulate serotonin hormone levels in the brain. They work by blocking its reabsorption into neurons, keeping the brain flooded with this “happiness” hormone. For the most part, these medications are safe. However, children and young adults may experience worsening symptoms, including an increase in suicidal thoughts in the first few weeks. Parents should diligently monitor their children and contact a physician if needed. In the long run, antidepressants are proven to improve mood and reduce the risk of suicide. They are non-addictive; however, stopping them suddenly can lead to withdrawal symptoms. When your child is ready to come off them, always ensure they follow the gradual dose reduction plan prescribed by the doctor.
In addition to helping your child access the appropriate treatment for their condition, here are a few other actions you can take to parent a depressed teenager back toward the light.
How to Parent a Depressed Teenager
Health problems with children are always difficult on parents. But mental health concerns can come loaded with stigma and unhelpful preconceived notions. If you deny the truth and assume that your child can “snap out of it” if they try hard enough, it will invalidate their reality. This only results in shame and self-blame for an illness your teen has little control over. Proactively discussing the issue, and researching it more if you have to, will help your child feel supported during treatment which can often last several months.
Your child needs you now more than ever. Even with a trusted therapist, they must feel safe about coming to you when their world feels dark. Create an environment where your child knows you will not get angry about how they feel. Contrary to popular belief, talking about mental health concerns is effective. Respect their privacy and when they are ready to talk, listen closely with an open mind and heart. This simple act of connecting with your teen will provide them with the support that they require through depressive episodes.
Screen Time and Bedtime
Youth use their electronic devices for communication, entertainment, education and more. Numerous studies over the last decade have shown that their dependence on these devices mimics addiction. Furthermore, electronic devices can become enablers for social isolation, poor sleep habits and unhealthy psychological behaviours like aggression and anxiety. Ironically, during the pandemic, our devices have become the only means through which we can have any meaningful connection with those outside our bubble. So banning screen time completely will be counterproductive. Instead, parents can start a discussion about how much screen time is fair for their teenagers. For example, you could ban devices completely during meals and family time.
Also at night, light exposure from devices and televisions can disrupt circadian rhythms and sleep. Consequently, an hour before bedtime, the entire family can relax with books, listen to the radio or a podcast. Lead by example to implement proper sleep hygiene as this is one of the simplest ways to set your child up for a restful night to aid emotional regulation.
Nourishing the Body
The human gut is directly linked to the brain, and in fact, gut bacteria produce 95% of the serotonin for us. Consequently, a healthy diet will play a large role in your depressed child’s recovery. Limit their intake of sugar, saturated fats, and caffeine. In addition, creating routines that see them venturing outdoors daily for a walk, hike or bike ride will help increase their levels of Vitamin D, the sunshine hormone, which plays an important role in mood regulation.
Having a conversation about suicide is never a welcome prospect for any parent. But anyone with a depressed teenager must address it because the risk is a sad reality. Such discussions present no danger of implanting suicidal thoughts in your child’s mind. However, connecting with someone who cares about them might make a difference. Always trust your judgement to help you mitigate the risk. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1.833.456.4566 for help on how to have this discussion with your depressed child and for support to help you prevent it from occurring. If you believe your child is at an immediate risk of self-harm, then call 911 or take them to the nearest hospital emergency department.
Secondary Trauma in Caregivers
Caring for a child with depression is a tough, and sometimes lonely journey. Watching a previously happy child in turmoil and disconnected from you can also leave you deeply unhappy. Do not ignore the signals your mind and body send you. Burnout and compassion fatigue can impede your own mental health, leaving you exposed to secondary trauma. Self-care and even a few sessions with a therapist for yourself can help ensure your own resources do not get depleted.
Research assistance for this blog was provided by Yasaman Haghighat, Counselling Psychology Intern. Beaches Therapy Group is proud to support our industry with internship opportunities that offer the next generation of therapists exposure to practical real-world experience. Learn more about therapy sessions at reduced rates with our interns.