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The ups and downs of the teenage years can be very confusing for parents. Mood changes are normal and should be expected as children navigate through their adolescence.  However, there are many teens who suffer from depression which is significantly different from common mood changes in teenagers and which can be very serious.

What is Depression?

Some statistics show that four out of every 100 teenagers experience some sort of serious depression each year.  Most individuals who experience some form of depression can be helped with treatment.  The difference between depression and normal sadness is usually related to the strength of the feeling as well as the persistence of the feeling.  Individuals who are depressed usually experience these strong feelings for weeks at a time (often times much longer) rather than just for a brief period of time.  Some common symptoms of depression include:

  • Feeling sad all the time
  • Frequent crying
  • Feeling irritable or angry
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Lack of motivation or enthusiasm
  • Fatigue – lack of energy
  • Poor concentration
  • Thoughts of suicide and death
  • Feel like nothing good will ever happen
  • No longer enjoying things that used to be fun

 Adolescent Depression versus Adult Depression:

Adolescent depression can be very different from depression in adults.  In teens it is more common for depression to present as irritability or anger.  Depressed teens may be hostile, easily frustrated and may have frequent, angry outbursts which is not necessarily what you think about when you hear “depression”.  In addition, teenagers experiencing depression may complain of physical ailments such as headaches or stomach-aches.  Further, teens who are depressed are highly sensitive to criticism due to their already low feelings of self-worth.  Finally, teens who are depressed may not isolate from everyone in their lives, however, will have noticeable changes in their interactions and may pull away from certain individuals in their lives (often times parents).

What Can Happen if Depression Goes Untreated?

If a teenager’s depression goes untreated the following behaviors could result:

  • Problems in school – drop in grades, poor attendance, dropping out
  • Running away – is a cry for help as teens try to escape their feelings
  • Substance abuse – teens may try to “self medicate” or escape from their feelings
  • Low self-esteem – teens may have intense feeling of unworthiness
  • Eating disorders – often signs of untreated depression
  • Internet addiction – is an escape from their real life but actually increases isolation
  • Self-injury – is a coping mechanism for teens and an effort to control the pain inside
  • Reckless behavior – engage in dangerous behaviors because they have stopped caring
  • Violence – (usually boys) self-hatred is sometimes acted out
  • Suicide – any thoughts, comments or behaviors should be taken very seriously.  If your teen is talking about, writing about or making suicidal gestures you should seek professional help immediately. 

What To Do If You Think Your Teenager is Depressed:

As is stated in the beginning of this article, depression is usually very treatable and is usually treated through talk therapy, medication or a combination of the two.  If you suspect your teenager may be depressed, you should try to talk to them about it in a very nurturing and non-judgmental way and let them know you are there to support them.  It can be very powerful to validate their feelings and to just listen without trying to educate or lecture them.  They may know something is not right but not really understand what is going on inside them which can feel very scary and isolating.  Hopefully, you teenager will feel a sense of relief that they are able to talk about what they are experiencing, however, if they continue to deny that anything is wrong – don’t take their word for it.  It may be too scary or embarrassing for your teen to admit something is really wrong, however, as the parent you know your child and should trust your instincts.  It is best to get a professional opinion if you are truly feeling like something is wrong.

Your teen’s primary care doctor is qualified to do a depression screening and to rule out any other medical problems which may be causing the symptoms which are present.  If there is no medical cause, your doctor can refer you to a mental health specialist who can help you and your teen address the depression.

Talk therapy (counseling) with a licensed therapist or psychologist can be very important in helping individuals understand why they are depressed and in developing strategies for managing depressive feelings.  I have worked with many, many teenagers who are able to fully manage their symptoms of depression through talk therapy alone.  Depending on the circumstances of the depression, there can be noticeable results very quickly for both the teen and for those around them.  It is important that teens find a therapist whom they can connect with and open up to.  It is completely acceptable and appropriate for teens and parents to screen or interview a potential therapist to determine if the individual will be a good fit.

Medication (antidepressants) can also be effective for some individuals who are depressed.  The use of medication assists the brain in releasing chemicals which elevate an individual’s overall mood.  Parents looking for a medication consultation for their teenager should consider locating a child / adolescent psychiatrist since the use of medications for children and adolescents can be quite different from the use for adults.  As with all medications, there are risks and side effects when using antidepressants with teenagers so parents should ask about these when making any decisions about medication for their teen.  Remember, your and your teenager will ultimately make the decision whether medication will be used to help treat the depression so a consultation does not commit you to anything!  Unless there are serious safety issues at play – I generally advise starting with therapy which is often times all that is required in the treatment of depression.

Encouraging exercise and social activity is also very helpful for teens who are experiencing depression.  Many teens find art, journaling and yoga in addition to traditional sports helpful when feeling depressed.  I cannot stress enough how much any form of physical activity can be in the treatment of depression.

Parents who are dealing with a depressed child may feel very overwhelmed themselves as this can be a scary and uncertain time.  It is important that parents take care of themselves and tend to their own needs despite the significant needs of their teen.  Parents need their own support during this time if feeling overwhelmed whether this is the support of a friend or family member, a life coach or their own therapist.  In addition, most parents find it helpful to educate themselves about what is going on for their child.  This can be done through the internet, talking to a doctor or to their teen’s therapist, or through reading a book or two about depression.  It is also important for parents to not blame themselves or each other for their teenager’s depression (even if this is something that runs in their families which is often the case with depression).  Depression can be caused by many factors so it is unlikely that any one person or thing has caused the situation.  Remember, the good news is that most teens are able to feel better with professional support as well as with parental support and learning about depression is the first step towards getting your teen the help they may need.

If you are the parent of a teenager looking for additional support, go to How To Parent A Teen to see all of our coaching programs and products and to download your FREE Audio program titled:  3 Powerful Strategies For Parents Of Teenagers.

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I have heard from countless parents how frustrated they become when they so badly want to help influence and shape their teenager’s life, however, their teen wants nothing at all to do with them.  As a parent, how do you manage this dynamic?  This is very tricky for a few reasons.  First, as the parent you are older, wiser and have often times had experiences from which your teen could benefit hearing about.  Second, it is often difficult to just sit back and watch your teenager make mistakes that you could help prevent if they would just be open to your advice.  Finally, and let’s be honest, sometimes you just want things done your way.  It can feel really frustrating to have advice that you feel would benefit your teen and feel that no matter what you do or say they will not listen to you or take your advice.

One question parents should ask themselves in these situations is, “what am I really looking to do by giving advice in this situation”?  The reason why I see this as such an important question is because often times it is less about really wanting to tell your teen what they should do and more about wanting to stay involved, influential and a part of their life.  Yes – there are situations when you truly want to tell your child what to do so that they can avoid a messy situation, however, more often you just want to have a presence in your teenager’s life. You want to be able to guide them and shape their life for the better.

With this in mind, you will want to think about behaviors which may help you remain connected (or reconnect if you feel a connection has already been lost) with your teen in addition to behaviors that will push your teen away.  Often times, changing your way of interacting with your teenager will change the dynamic and can greatly improve the overall feel of the relationship and ultimately their interest in advice you may have for them.  Below is a list of suggestions:

Behaviors that may help you remain connected or reconnect with your teenager:

  1. Be vulnerable.  Often times this seems strange because parents feel they need to be the strength for their teenager.  However, being vulnerable with your teenager allows them to see you as a real person with real feelings.  Examples of being vulnerable may include letting them know that you miss talking to them, asking them questions about their music or pop culture they like and tell them you feel out of loop about what is current, eating meals with them and just spending time with them in general being your relaxed self.  One of the best ways to be vulnerable is to apologize if you said or did something you wish you had not.  Own your mistakes in a sincere way.
  2. Don’t act out of emotion.  This can be extremely difficult when your teenager pushes your buttons or makes a decision which is harmful or highly inappropriate.  As a parent who cares deeply about their child, of course you are going to be emotional (angry, scared, disappointed, frustrated) when these things happen which is normal and not a problem at all.  What does sometimes become a problem is when parents act out of these strong emotions.  In these situations parents often times say things that they later regret, however, even with an apology, their teen who already has insecure and fragile self-esteem will hang onto the emotional response which can damage the parent – teen relationship.  It is better to take time to calm down, gather your thoughts (even write them down so that you remain on track when speaking with your teenager) and then speak with your teenager calmly about the situation.
  3. Don’t say “I told you so”.  Nobody ever wants to hear this phrase and teenagers are no exception.  As a parent, you will likely have many “I told you so” moments.  You will offer advice to your teenager, they will refuse your advice and then down the road the exact thing you predicted would happen does.  It will be extremely tempting to use these situations as an opportunity to tell your teenager that they should listen to you more because you were right.  While all of that is true, it is better to allow your teenager an opportunity to “save face” and not feel ashamed by the situation.  They will know that your advice would have been worth taking but will likely never tell you this.  Getting into a power struggle about who was right and who was wrong will likely only create resentment in your teenager.  As a parent, you can continue to offer your suggestions and hope that over time your teenager will see that you do have something worthwhile to offer them!

Behaviors that may further push your teenager away:

  1. Yelling and Screaming.  This is often a natural reaction to situations your teenager may create, however, is generally not helpful and can quickly cause them to view you as the “bad guy” and resent you.
  2. Saying you were right and they were wrong.  See the section above which outlines this concept.
  3. Giving extreme consequences.  Teenagers will become resentful if the consequences you give them are extreme in an effort to make a point.  For example, if Susie returns 30 minutes late with the car an extreme consequence may be that she cannot drive the car for 6 months.  The point will get lost in the outrageousness of the consequence.  When giving consequences to teenagers, the consequences should be meaningful and time limited.

For more parenting resources and tips go to the How To a Parent website where you can gain instant access to our free audio titled 3 Powerful Strategies For Parents Of Teenagers – get this audio HERE now.  You can also follow Karen Vincent on Twitter @KarenParentTeen.

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