Trying to Help a Depressed Teen? 9 Do’s and Don’ts
If you have a teenager in the house, you’re probably familiar with silence or vague responses when you attempt conversation, a tendency to sleep the day away unless you intervene, and a preference for phones and computers over face-to-face time with loved ones.
These behaviors are pretty characteristic of most teens, but they can also be signs of depression. Abrupt changes in their mood can lead you to wonder whether they’re struggling with mental health symptoms or just, well, being a teenager.
Depression symptoms in teenagers often include:
- unusual irritability
- angry outbursts
- fatigue, lack of energy, and lethargy
- aches, pains, or stomach issues
- less interest in their regular activities
- less interest in spending time with friends or family
- dropping grades or disinterest in school
- negative or critical self-talk
- talk about death, dying, or suicide
If you’ve noticed these signs on most days for more than a week or two, your child could have depression. Here’s how to approach the topic gently and offer support.
Start by finding a quiet, private time to have a conversation. It may help to approach the subject with just one parent, since facing two parents at once might overwhelm your child or create an atmosphere of confrontation.
Explain the behaviors worrying you:
- “I’m wondering why you haven’t spent much time with your friends lately.”
- “I’m worried because you’re sleeping much more than usual.”
- “I’ve noticed you get angry so quickly these days.”
- “I’m concerned because you haven’t put much effort into your schoolwork lately.”
Then, follow up with open-ended questions:
- “What happened to change your mind about your friends?”
- “Can you explain what’s bothering you?”
- “What’s making you feel this way?”
- “Do you think about death or dying?”
Keep in mind the idea that asking about suicide will give someone the idea is just a myth. Asking your child about suicidal thoughts makes it easier to get them the right support. You’ll find more guidance and suicide prevention resources below.
It’s absolutely normal to feel scared and want to rush them to a mental health professional immediately. Getting them talking first, though, can help give you a clearer picture of what’s going on.
If they don’t open up the first time you ask, keep asking. If they seem reluctant to talk about depression, remind them it’s a
When they do start to open up, use active listening to help them feel heard. Wrap up what you’re doing — work, meal planning, or getting other kids ready for bed — as soon as you can and try not to let the moment pass.
Depression sometimes makes people feel as if they’re burdening loved ones. That means they might take a completely reasonable, “Just 5 minutes!” as a rejection and hesitate to “bother” you again.
If you can’t stop what you’re doing, take a moment to explain. “I want to give you my full attention, but I need to take care of this first. I’ll be done in about 45 minutes, and then I can focus on you completely.”
When it’s time to talk:
- Give them all of your attention.
- Avoid interrupting, finishing their sentences, or filling in their pauses. Let them share in their own time, even if it takes them a while to get the words out.
- Focus on their words, not what you want to say to them.
- Summarize what they’ve said to make sure you understand. “It sounds like you’ve been feeling sad and hopeless about life and you can’t find the energy to do anything. Is that right?”
- If you aren’t sure what they mean, ask for clarification.
You might not understand exactly what they’re feeling, but avoid minimizing or invalidating their pain by saying things like:
- “Oh, that’s not such a big deal.”
- “Everyone feels like that sometimes.”
- “I was moody all the time when I was a teenager, but I grew out of it.”
Offer compassion and validation instead:
- “I can see how you feel overwhelmed by those thoughts.”
- “That sounds painful, but you’re not alone. I’m here to support you.”
- “I imagine feeling sad all the time must make you feel exhausted. You’re going through so much.”
While your compassion and guidance can make a big difference for your child, professional support is typically the best way to improve symptoms.
If they resist the idea of therapy at first, talking to a school counselor, family pediatrician, or favorite teacher can help them get more comfortable with the idea. They might be more willing to consider therapy when other trusted adults encourage them to reach out.
Talking over what happens in therapy can also help demystify the process. If they seem worried about being hospitalized or forced to take medication, explain that a therapist will listen to their thoughts, offer support without judgment, and help them explore ways to start feeling better.
You can also explain that while medication can help relieve severe symptoms, they have other treatment options, too.
Considering online therapy? Check out our list of the 7 best online therapy programs for teens.
Encouraging your teen to stay active and involved in household responsibilities can help them continue to feel supported. Still, understand there may be times when they don’t feel up to doing much.
Remember, depression is an illness. If they had the flu, you’d give them a break from household chores and schoolwork, right? Depression can still drain their energy and prevent them from putting in their usual effort.
- find it harder than usual to concentrate
- move more slowly than usual
- seem frustrated and overly self-critical when they make a mistake
Encourage them to do what they can and offer gentle reminders instead of criticizing forgetfulness.
Try not to add to stress around schoolwork by saying things like, “College application deadlines are coming up,” or “Don’t you need to study for finals?” Chances are, they’re already feeling the pressure — and blaming themselves for their struggles.
Instead, offer help with homework and finding ways to make tasks more manageable.
If they have a research project, for example, you might:
- help them brainstorm topics
- talk over things to include on an outline
- take them to the library to find source material
Lifestyle changes can have a lot of benefit for depression symptoms.
These changes might include:
- more physical activity
- regular nutritious meals
- plenty of sunshine
- dedicated bedtimes
- a nightly wind-down routine
Incorporating these changes into your family routine can improve well-being for everyone without singling them out. As an added bonus, new habits can increase family time, helping your teen feel more connected and supported.
A few things to try:
- Take a family walk after dinner.
- Designate the last hour or two before bedtime as device-free time. Instead, play a boardgame, work on a puzzle, or listen to an audiobook together.
- Cook meals together as a family whenever possible. Get kids involved in meal planning and preparation. You can even challenge each other to come up with new recipes.
- Make sure everyone gets to bed in enough time to get the sleep they need. Teenagers need
8 to 10hours of sleep each night.
Maintaining important friendships can help your teen continue to feel socially connected even when they’re struggling.
Consider temporarily relaxing your usual rules around socializing. If you usually don’t allow sleepovers or late hangouts on school nights, for example, you might make some exceptions until their symptoms improve.
You can always make spending time on schoolwork or helping out with dinner a condition of the sleepover.
It’s also worth encouraging them to try a new activity or hobby, like guitar lessons, art classes, or a sport. Volunteering and other acts of kindness, like helping out neighbors, may also help ease feelings of depression.
1. Criticism and punishment
In normal circumstances, you might respond to failed exams and incomplete homework by grounding your teen, limiting TV time, or taking away their phone.
Depression isn’t a “free pass” for misbehavior, but it’s important to separate the effects of depression from actual wrongdoing. Taking away their phone, or main method of interacting with friends, might actually make things worse.
- Let them know that you understand that they’re struggling, and encourage them to keep trying. As an alternative to screen time, you might suggest they invite a friend to study, play games, or get outside together.
- Work together to find solutions. You might say, “I know it’s hard to keep up with chores when you feel like this. What do you think you can handle right now?”
- Remind them you love and support them, no matter what.
2. Judging self-harming behaviors
It can be deeply distressing to discover your teen has started cutting or injuring themselves in other ways. While self-harm is never something to ignore, it doesn’t automatically mean your child is considering suicide.
Your first instinct may be to search their room and throw out self-harm tools, check their body every day, or keep them in your sight at all times. But these responses often only shame your child and drive them away.
A compassionate, judgement-free response is always more helpful:
- Ask: “Can you tell me more about the feelings that make you want to hurt yourself?”
- Say: “I can see you’re in a lot of pain, but I’m worried about your safety. Could we talk about some alternative things to try that might help?”
3. Taking things personally
Your child may not always want to talk about their feelings or share the progress they’re making in therapy. Certainly, you want to know they’re getting better, but pushing them won’t help them feel more comfortable opening up.
It’s important you know about any side effects of treatment or recurring distressing thoughts. Otherwise, remind them you’re there whenever they feel ready to talk, and give them space to share in their own time.
Not everyone with depression thinks about suicide. Many people who do have suicidal thoughts never make a plan or attempt suicide. That said, you’ll want to take any mention of suicide seriously.
It’s time to get professional support right away if you notice any of the following signs in your child:
- writing stories or poems about dying
- exhibiting risk-taking behavior, including substance or alcohol use
- talking about dying or wanting a way out of their pain
- becoming more withdrawn from others
- saying others would be better off without them
- giving away personal possessions
If they tell you they’re thinking about suicide:
- Ask if they’ve made a crisis or safety plan in therapy, and follow those steps.
- Connect them with their therapist for guidance on next steps.
- Encourage them to text the Crisis Text Line (text HOME to 741741) or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) for 24/7 crisis support.
- Take them to the emergency room for support.
Explore more suicide prevention resources here.
Avoid leaving them alone while they’re in crisis, and make sure they don’t have access to any weapons or medications.
You know your child, so you probably know when something’s not right. If they seem low or irritable on a regular basis, talk with them about getting help for depression.
Above all, don’t forget to emphasize that you’re on their side and will do whatever it takes to get them support. They might shrug you off, but they’re listening, and your words can make a difference.
Remember, depression is no one’s fault — not theirs, and not yours.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.
Last medically reviewed on April 21, 2021