Adolescence is known for its mood swings and rebellion. However, you might find that your child has become particularly emotional or self-critical. These changes might be signs of depression and, if so, it’s important to explore what might be going on.
There is support available to help your teen with depression – and the earlier the better. It may be a long road, with setbacks along the way; but with the right support, you can get the most appropriate treatment for teenage depression.
Talking to your teen about depression
If you notice some of the signs of depression in your child, it’s important to talk to them about it. Non-judgmental communication with your teenager about their health won’t do any harm, and if there is something more serious going on then you’ve already taken the first step together towards getting help.
When you talk to your child, be specific about what you’ve noticed and why it’s worrying you. For example, you might say: ‘You haven’t been playing basketball recently. Is everything okay?’ Or: ‘I’ve noticed that you’ve been sleeping in longer than normal recently. Is there anything you want to chat about?’
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. At first, they may say that nothing is wrong. Teenagers often don’t connect their feelings and behaviours with experiencing depression.
Some things to consider when talking to your child about depression:
- Listen openly. Don’t overwhelm your teenager with questions. Try to avoid lecturing them or giving them an ultimatum. The important thing is to get your child talking about what they’re going through, and letting them know you are there to listen. Talking about depression can be hard for anyone, so if your child shuts you out at first, respect that they might not be ready to talk.
- Validate their feelings. This isn’t your experience, so even if your teen’s thoughts and feelings seem silly or irrational to you, it’s important not to downplay them. Acknowledge what your teenager is describing, to ensure that they feel comfortable opening up to you.
- Offer your support. Let your child know that you’re there to support them, no matter what. Listen to and work with them to figure out the support that’s best for them.
How to help and support a teen with depression
There’s no ‘one size fits all’ treatment for depression. Everyone experiences it differently and needs different types of support. Be open to learning what the different options are, and work with your child to help them decide which one will best suit them.
If your child’s depression is significantly affecting their life, it’s best to see a mental health professional, such as a psychologist. If the depression is mild, or if your child isn’t open to seeing a professional, there are lifestyle changes and self-management options that can be a good first step.
Your GP will be able to refer you to a psychologist under the Better Access Scheme through Medicare, which gives you ten subsidised sessions per calendar year. A health professional can work with your child over several sessions to manage their depression. Your teenager can also speak to a school counsellor or youth worker.
Online and phone support
Depending on your circumstances and your teenager’s preferences, helplines for teenage depression, available online or on the phone, might be a better fit. These forms can also be great for times when face-to-face help isn't available, such as at night, between appointments or when it’s difficult to get to a clinic. There are lots of different options:
A healthy lifestyle is an important part of managing depression. You can help your child 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 and relaxation, or to learn new positive coping strategies
- encouraging them to be physically active
- being supportive and building your child’s sense of self and self-esteem
- supporting them to find a creative outlet or to develop a new skill.
Anti-depressants can be prescribed by a GP or other medical professional. Be sure to talk to your doctor about the side-effects, and whether they are the right choice for your child.
Often the most effective way to treat teen depression is to use a range of different strategies, rather than rely on just one thing. Talk with your child and a mental health professional about the options that are available.
Common reactions to learning your teen has depression
It’s heartbreaking to see your child struggling. You may feel powerless if they don’t want to talk to you about what is happening for them. Your support is vital, but you may not be able to directly influence their mood. This doesn’t mean that you’re a bad parent! In these circumstances, your own mental health is particularly important and it may be helpful to talk to a professional about what is going on for you and ways to look after yourself, so that you’re in the best place to support your child.
It might help you to think of depression as being like a broken arm: your child has a broken arm; they are not a broken arm. Likewise, your child has depression; they are not depression.
Just as you wouldn’t hesitate to seek help for your child’s broken arm, confident that they will heal, having the same attitude towards depression will help your child realise that there is no need to feel ashamed, afraid or embarrassed. Stigma and misunderstanding about depression can stop people from getting the help they need – imagine not getting help for a broken arm! Be positive and optimistic that you will find the help your child needs for depression. Be prepared that it might take some time, but feel confident that you will both get to a place where your child can be well again.