As a clinical psychologist and a father of teens, I have the distinction of truly practicing what I preach, as well as understanding the difficulty of caring for loved ones who suffer from depression.
That said, it is essential to know what will be most helpful as a parent when your teen is struggling with the symptoms of depression.
Depression is very damaging when untreated, and usually, parents are the first line in that defense to listen and get appropriate help if necessary. Aside from the obvious professional help and asking for recommendations, it is also important to know when you might hinder or even harm the situation.
Focus on communication. First and foremost, concentrate on listening, not lecturing. Once your teen begins to talk, resist the urge to criticize. The important thing is that your child is communicating. Understand that it is not vital to correct facts during this communication but to be respectful and be willing to listen. It’s more important for your teen to “feel heard.”
Be gentle but persistent. Don’t give up if they shut you out at first. They may have a hard time expressing themselves. Give them some time. It’s OK to walk away, but come back and re-engage.
Try to acknowledge their feelings. Talk to your teen about how depression makes them feel; even if it seems silly, it’s good to get those feelings out. Try not to make them feel better and say things like “it will get better,” this is not the time. They are likely to believe that you are not taking their emotions seriously.
Work on your own anger. Get support for any feelings of guilt or shame for yourself through another family member. This will be a trying time, and it will test your limits as a parent. You may encounter extremely aggressive, even violent behavior from your teen, and you must remain calm and in control.
Understand that your teen may try to deceive or manipulate you. It is important to remember that they are hurting, and they will do anything to take away the pain.
Your teen may just want you to leave them alone. They may throw a blanket over their head, and you may feel helpless to assist. Things you can do are:
- Encourage social interaction with others, not through social media.
- Have your teen connect with others to combat social isolation.
- Set healthy limits on social media and screen time. I know this could be counterproductive with anger and irritability, but in the long run, it will help.
- Get your teen involved with people and something they like doing. Have them sign up for a club, explore their musical interests, or possibly a sport or gym activity. Assist your teen in these activities when they’re depressed. Encourage them, but don’t give up.
- Making physical health a priority is also important. Get your teen moving! Provide more nutritious meals and appropriate sleep time.
- Maintain healthy boundaries and home expectations.
- Don’t allow your teen to sleep with their phone in the bedroom.
- Be unified on your front with your co-parent if available. Share the responsibility.
- Don’t play the blame game!
- Provide safety in your home, emotional and physical.
Most importantly, avoid the battles that will come up when you try to get your teen to do an activity that may be necessary, like school or participating in a family event. There are no clear rules on the best way to do this, but usually, open communication and a gentle hand with compassion work best.
Don’t be afraid to talk to other siblings in whatever detail necessary for their age level to review what is going on in the family. Most times, they already know, and if left to their imagination, it will usually be worse. Open communication with family members is important to reduce the stigma regarding mental health. You may find out that other people in your family may share some of those fears or feelings. It’s better to get a jump on it early.
There are parent support groups that can assist you in dealing with mental illness if you lack your own support. Working through feelings of guilt and shame surrounding family members with mental illness is necessary. Dr. Stu Leeds is a clinical psychologist, whose practice includes individual, marital, family, and group therapy of children, adolescents, and adults. Dr. Leeds also specializes in forensic psychology – evaluating and treating juvenile and adult offenders and performing risk/threat management assessments.