The teenage years can be a difficult time for many children. Unfortunately, some of the common behaviours of adolescence are quite similar to some of the signs of clinical depression – which can make depression difficult to spot. It can be a good idea to learn as much as you can about depression, so that you can recognise the signs.
If you suspect that your teen is experiencing symptoms of depression, this guide will show you how you can effectively and compassionately communicate with them about it.
What are the signs of teen depression?
While many of the signs of depression are similar in both teens and adults, there are a few differences that may help you to figure out if your teen is struggling with symptoms of depression.
These symptoms can include anger, sensitivity and withdrawal. Check out ‘Understanding depression and teenagers’ for a full list of signs and specific symptoms in teens.
Depression or just regular teenage emotions?
Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish the signs of depression in teens from the mood changes that are a normal part of growing up.
These are the indicators that your teenager may be experiencing mental health symptoms that are significantly affecting their life, and that they need some extra support.
They can include:
- If the length of time your teenager displays troubling changes to their behaviour lasts longer than two weeks.
- If the changes to your teen’s behaviour are severe e.g. drastic mood swings, including anger outbursts, or are obviously bursts of tiredness, anger or sadness.
- If these behaviours are noticeably affecting your child’s life, particularly their productivity or ability to participate in school, work, hobbies or social activities.
How to talk to a teen about depression
If you notice some of the signs of depression in your child, it’s important to talk to them about it, even if it’s difficult or uncomfortable for you both.
Many parents find these kinds of conversations challenging: you can find one-to-one support via the ReachOut Coaching Service, or read up on some tips for effectively communicating with your teenager.
Some things to consider when talking to your teen:
- Choose the right time and place. Choose a place that is private and quiet, at a time when your teen is calm and relaxed.
- Listen openly. Practise active listening, rather than just waiting for your turn to speak. Ask your teen open-ended questions to encourage them to open up.
- Don’t take it personally if your teen doesn’t want to talk to you. They may need more time to process how they’re feeling, or they may not feel comfortable talking to a parent about their mental health. The best thing to do in this case is give them space, and encourage them to speak to someone else (like a helpline or GP) when they are ready. Remind yourself that the important thing is that your teen opens up to someone, even if that someone isn’t you.
- Don’t lecture them. Being lectured, scolded or given an ultimatum has the potential to make teenagers withdraw further and feel uncomfortable about opening up to you in the future.
- Validate their feelings. Everyone’s experiences with depression are different. Even if your teen’s thoughts and feelings don’t make sense to you, it’s important not to downplay them. Acknowledgement now will lead to your teen feeling comfortable opening up to you in the future.
- Remember that depression is a real health condition that needs support. People who have never experienced depression may find it difficult to understand it, so it can be helpful to think of depression as being just like a broken arm: you wouldn’t hesitate to get your child urgent help for a broken arm, so you shouldn’t hesitate to find them help for depression either.
- Verbalise your unconditional support. Let your teen know that you will always be there to support them through this, no matter what.
What should you say to teens who have depression?
Ask them if anything is going on for them that they’d like to talk about. Your teenager might not open up right away, but you’ll be planting the seed for them to talk about it, and this will be important when they’re ready to open up.
Some things you can say to begin the conversation:
- Be specific about what you’ve noticed and why it’s worrying you. For example, you might say: ‘I’ve noticed that you’ve been sleeping in longer than normal recently. Is there anything you want to chat about?’
- Ask open-ended questions. For example: ‘I’ve noticed you’ve been really quiet. How have you been feeling lately?’
- Offer to help them in specific ways. Depression can often affect decision making and the ability to complete everyday tasks. Instead of simply asking ‘Do you need anything?’, offer specific suggestions. For example, offer to finish their laundry for them or to make ready-to-go breakfasts so they don’t have to rush in the morning.
How to help and support a teen with depression
Everyone experiences depression differently and needs different types of support, so make sure to work with your teen to help them decide which support best suits them.
If depression is significantly affecting your teen’s life, you could encourage them to see a mental health professional. You could help them to understand how to obtain a mental health care plan, and assist them with finding a GP and a psychologist.
Not everyone with depression wants or needs to see a psychologist, so if they don’t want to, that’s okay. In the meantime, they could speak to a school counsellor or youth worker.
Online and phone support
Helplines can be really beneficial for times when face-to-face help isn't accessible, or if your teenager would prefer to talk to someone online or over the phone.
There are lots of different options:
- Youth Beyond Blue
- Kids Helpline
- ReachOut Peer Chat (for young people ages 18-25)
- 13Yarn (for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people)
- Find more support services here.
A healthy lifestyle is an important part of managing depression.
You can help your teen to make healthy lifestyle changes by:
- encouraging them to connect with supportive peers and social activities
- encouraging them to explore self-help activities such as mindfulness, or to learn new positive coping strategies
- encouraging them to be physically active and to get outside
- being supportive and building their sense of self and self-esteem
- supporting them to find a creative outlet or to develop a new skill
- trying a nightly wind-down routine (e.g. ‘device-free time’ to foster conversation and family time)
- making regular healthy and nutritious meals – you could also get your teen involved in preparing the meals.
Some parents find that implementing these lifestyle changes together as a family can be beneficial for their teenager. It can make it easier for them to keep up with the routines every day if other family members are doing these activities too.
Medication for depression, such as antidepressants, can be prescribed by a GP or other medical professional. There are a variety of different medications that can be prescribed.
Not everyone with depression has to take antidepressants, and many people who have depression manage their symptoms comfortably with non-pharmaceutical treatments. Often the most effective way to treat depression is to use a combination of different strategies, which can include medication. It’s best for your teen to talk to their GP about whether medication is the best treatment option for them.
How do you help a teenager who doesn’t want help?
It can be tough witnessing your teen struggle with their mental health, but it can be even harder if they refuse all help.
If you’ve tried to speak to your teenager and they’ve denied they need help, all you can do for now is remind them that the communication lines are always open and your help is always available.
Remember to take care of yourself too
It can be heartbreaking to see your child grappling with depression, and you may experience difficult emotions, including grief, powerlessness and stress. It can be helpful to talk to someone about these feelings, even if you don’t have a mental health condition yourself.
If you don’t want to speak to a mental health professional, find someone you know you could talk to, such as a friend, family member, counsellor or community leader. Talking to someone about your own mental health can help to ensure you’re in a positive place emotionally to support your teenager through their tough times.