I’m worried about a teen in my life.

One out of every five teenagers struggles with depression.

Depression can interfere with everyday life for teens and can lead to academic failure, substance abuse, bullying or being bullied, eating disorders, and suicide.

t

Teen depression is often mistaken for normal teen angst.

Many of the behaviors associated with adolescence — moodiness, anger, social withdrawl — may actually be signs of depression.

Caring adults must know what to look for and how to intervene.

The teen may not reach out for help themselves, so it is important to know how to approach them or their parents.

Teen Depression Webinar

This free webinar covers how to spot depression in teens, intervention techniques, and communication tips.

Learn More

Teen Depression Workshop

Learn how to bring our Teen Depression Workshop to your community.

Learn More

Teen Speakers

Our Teen Speakers talk to their peers (or parents) about depression and bipolar disorder.

Learn More

Signs of teen depression

  • Depressed, irritable, sad, or empty mood for at least two weeks
  • Decreased interest or enjoyment in once-favorite activities and people
  • Changes in appetite, eating too much or too little, significant weight gain or loss
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Physical agitation or slowness
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Low self-esteem, feeling guilty
  • Decreased ability to concentrate, indecisive
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Recurrent suicidal thoughts or behavior (*seek immediate medical help)

What adults may notice

  • Irritable or cranky mood, preoccupation with song lyrics that suggest life is meaningless
  • Loss of interest in sports or other activities, withdrawal from friends and family, relationship problems
  • Failure to gain weight as normally expected
  • Excessive late-night TV, having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, having trouble getting up in the morning
  • Inability to sit still, taking a long time to complete normal tasks, pacing back and forth, and/or excessive repetition of behaviors
  • Social withdrawal, napping, withdrawal from usual activities, boredom
  • Making critical comments about themselves, having behavior problems at home or school, being overly sensitive to rejection
  • Poor performance at school, drop in grades, frequent absences
  • Frequent complaints of physical pain (headache, stomachache)
  • Writing about death, giving away favorite belongings, “You’d be better off without me.”

If you are the parent

Find a time to talk to your child with as few distractions as possible. Start by telling them you care about how they are feeling. Then, you can try some of these techniques:

My first thought was “What did I do wrong? What did I do or not do as a parent when she was a baby or when she got older?” But, depression is an illness – it’s not due to any particular thing that you did.

- David, parent of a teen with depression

Describe why you are concerned
  • “I’m worried because I’ve noticed you’ve been crying a lot lately.”
  • “I’m concerned because it seems that you are feeling angry and unhappy these days.”
  • “I’m sad because you don’t have much energy to do the things you used to enjoy doing, like hanging out with your friends.”
  • “I worry about your safety when you . . . “
Understand their feelings

Keep your questions open-ended, rather than questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” You can say things like:

  • “Sometimes when people are depressed they feel sad, angry, alone, or just like they want to cry all day. How have you been feeling lately?”
  • Once your child begins to open up, you can make a simple statement like, “Tell me more about that” to get more information.
Work together

Most children and teens with depression feel alone or lonely. You can reassure your child that you are going to be there by saying things like:

  • “You are not alone. I’m going to help you work through this problem.”
  • “We can handle this together. I’m going to stick by you.”
Be clear and honest

Answer questions as honestly as possible based upon what is age-appropriate.

  • “You are going to see a doctor who helps people who have sad feelings. Some doctors fix broken bones or help you when you are sick. Other doctors help you with your feelings.” (for young children)
  • “Some medicine makes you better when you have a cold. The medicine that you’ll be taking helps sad feelings go away.” (for young children)
  • “Some people’s brain chemistry needs adjustment. Antidepressants help to adjust the chemicals in the brain to make people with depression feel better.” (for teens)
Give hope

Most children and teens respond fairly quickly to treatment. Your child feels depressed now and doesn’t realize that things will get better. You can reassure by saying: “Even if it doesn’t happen right away, we will have you feeling better.”
Dont ask why he or she feels depressed. Children and teens who are depressed can’t answer questions like, “Why are you crying all the time?” or “What do you have to be sad about?” Asking them only makes them feel worse, like they are supposed to control their depressed feelings when they can’t.
Dont tell your child to change how he or she feels. Depressed children and teens cannot just “snap out of it.” They can’t help how they feel and they can’t make it go away by willpower.
Dont compare your past feelings to your childs depression. It’s not helpful to say, “Well, when I feel badly, I just pull myself up by my bootstraps,” or “When my childhood dog died, I just had to get over it’.”

How to help your teen once they are diagnosed

Honor your child’s feelings. It is difficult to see your child sad and in pain. Your first response might be to try to cheer him or her up. Don’t. Trying to make depressed children and teens happy makes them feel like the depression can be willed away. It is more helpful to listen. Acknowledge their feelings, and take them seriously.

We have open conversations with our kids. We try to hit on on the fact that depression is genetic – it’s not your fault. If you needed glasses or if you had diabetes, we’d be doing something. We’ve had a lot of love, a lot of conversations, and a lot of patience with challenges we never thought we’d have.

- Sheila, parent of four teenagers

Use encouraging statements rather than punishment.

Instead of yelling, “Turn that television off! You haven’t done your homework yet!” say “When you finish your homework, you can watch television.”

Separate the deed from the doer.

If your child constantly forgets to take his or her lunch money to school, don’t say, “You are so forgetful! You can’t remember a simple thing like your lunch money!” Instead, say something that focuses on the behavior, not your child, like “I know it has been hard for you to remember your lunch money. What can we do to make sure it gets put in your book bag every morning?”

Focus on consequences rather than punishment.

For example, if your child breaks a lamp during a temper tantrum, use a logical consequence (like having your child help glue the lamp back together or use his or her allowance to have the lamp repaired) rather than issuing an unrelated punishment (like sending your child to his or her room for the rest of the evening).

Help your child build a “feeling vocabulary”.

Many people have difficulty finding the words to describe how they are feeling. Helping children and teens to label their feelings gives them a vocabulary that will enable them to speak about feelings. For children, posters and coloring pages that contain lists or drawings of various emotions can be helpful.

Show unconditional love and support.

Many depressed children and teens feel unloved and unlovable. Say, “I love you” often. Hug or pat him or her on the back. With young children, be sure to cuddle together.

Encourage your child to engage in activities.

Consider the activities your child enjoys and suggest doing those together. But don’t force, threaten, or bribe him or her to do so. If your child is not feeling well enough to participate, honor that feeling.

Create good sleeping habits.

Children and teens with depression often have difficulty sleeping. This leads to more irritability and exhaustion. Sticking to a consistent bedtime, stopping caffeine intake, and getting regular exercise can improve the quality and quantity of sleep.

Understand that depression is a medical condition.

Although it is often difficult to keep your cool when your child is acting out, it is important not to punish or say hurtful things. Your child can’t help feeling and behaving the way he or she does. You can be angry at the depression while still feeling love and concern for your child who is hurting.

If you are not the parent

The teen in your life may be your student, a member of your after-school program, or a relative. Although you aren’t the parent, you can still play an important role in getting them help. Here are some things you can do:

  • Approach the teen’s parents and describe what you’ve observed in a thoughtful way. This may be difficult for the parent(s) to hear, but be honest and express your concern.
  • If, for some reason, you need to talk the teen first, follow the same approach. Tell them what you’ve observed and offer to talk to the principal, program leader, or parents with the teen.

What NOT to do

Dont ask why he or she feels depressed. Children and teens who are depressed can’t answer questions like, “Why are you crying all the time?” or “What do you have to be sad about?” Asking them only makes them feel worse, like they are supposed to control their depressed feelings when they can’t.
Dont tell your child to change how he or she feels. Depressed children and teens cannot just “snap out of it.” They can’t help how they feel and they can’t make it go away by willpower.
Dont compare your past feelings to your childs depression. It’s not helpful to say, “Well, when I feel badly, I just pull myself up by my bootstraps,” or “When my childhood dog died, I just had to get over it’.”

Get Our Depression and Bipolar Wellness Guides for Parent and Teens

These guides offer a 3-step monitoring approach for parents and a companion guide for teens.

Get the Guides