Teenage depression isn’t always easy to spot and left untreated, it can quickly get worse. So even if you think your teenager might be depressed, here are 10 things you should do now.
1. Take notes
If you spot signs of depression in your teenager, start a journal. When did the signs first appear to you? How long have they lasted? Two weeks or longer, according to the experts, indicates depression versus a dip in mood. Two weeks goes by really fast so it’s important to start paying attention.
2. Ask better questions
If the typical response to “how are you?” is a grunt or an unconvincing “fine”, try asking other, better questions. Did anything make you laugh today? What teacher do you like the most? How are your friends doing? What are you hoping to do this weekend? One of the best questions I have ever asked my son was, “What role does everyone play in your group of friends? Who’s the smart one? The athlete? Who’s got charisma?” There was a world of good stuff in his answer.
3. Offer to drive them places
I find the car to be by far the most effective environment to get the goods out of a teenager, so offer to drive your teen regularly. Take them anywhere they want to go and pry gently. They won’t look at you, but that’s the secret sauce: talking while driving makes it perfectly acceptable for your teen to talk while avoiding eye contact of any kind. And if they’re still tight-lipped, remind them that that you’re there if they need help with anything.
4. Be proactive about mental health care
Why is it that we take our kids for annual checkups, even when they’re perfectly healthy? We get flu shots before flu season and buy cell phone cases to prevent costly accidents. We teach our kids how to hit and fall properly in hockey, and yet we do nothing to prepare them for mental health challenges like adolescence. If you can, build regular mental health check-ups into your family health care plan. Make it not a big deal to check in with a therapist or even life coach on a semi-annual basis.
5. Talk to their teachers
It takes a village to raise kids and teachers need to be part of that village. That said, it’s better to enlist the teachers who will be most helpful in helping your child. Start with a teacher your child actually likes and go from there. Talk to the Principal if absences or behaviour are becoming an issue. Let them know that you’re aware your child is struggling, that you’re concerned they may have a mental health issue, and that you need their help. If things go sideways, they’re already in the know.
6. Focus on family
If your kids are like mine, they’ll say they do talk to people, they just don’t talk to me. Friends can be a huge help to our kids, but they’re not a replacement for adults. Try to spend time together as a family to balance out the time they’re spending with friends.
Also be aware that your teenager may gravitate to friends who are experiencing similar feelings. As my daughter’s therapist once put it, when your teenager is a depressed, it’s like they’re sitting in a deep hole in the ground with a ladder stretched to the surface. Some of their friends will climb up and down the ladder regularly to check on your teen. Some won’t bother, ever. It’s too much effort or the hole is scary to them. And then others will climb down the ladder and never climb back out. The ones who hunker down with your teen are probably not the best influence at that particular time.
7. Limit time spent on devices
As soon as you spot any sign of depression, restrict the amount of time they spend on their phones. Just as you’d change their daily diet if you thought they were diabetic or gluten or lactose intolerant, you should change their digital diet. At the very least remove devices from their room at night to foster better sleep habits. Ignore their protests. Do it now because I can assure you, if they become severely depressed or suicidal and you haven’t done this, restricting screen time becomes a lot trickier.
8. Encourage exercise
Exercise is important and helpful in so many ways. If you can get them moving—or better yet, move with them—it’s a triple whammy. Neither of you can look at screens while while moving fast. It opens up the opportunity for family time, and exercise is good for the brain. If you’re interested in brain science, The Scientist has a great article on how exercise impacts our brain health.
9. Start educating yourself about depression
Depression is a beast. The more you know about it before it really settles in, the better. Learn not only the signs of depression, but how it manifests. Know that depression will say horrible things to your child and will make your teenager say horrible things to you at times. It may make them angry and aggressive, lie, drink, do drugs, have sex, stop showering, stop going to school, cut, eat excessively or not eat at all and more. Your reaction to your teenager’s behaviour, or thoughts if they do choose to share them, in these early days is critical. The more you know, the better able you are to help them.
10. Take care of yourself
Managing depression, making room for it in your house, may be one of the most difficult things you’ll ever have to do in parenting. It is heartbreaking to watch your child struggle. It makes you question yourself and confront your own feelings of failure and inadequacy. It’s also incredibly maddening at times because your child is also a teenager and not yet their best selves. If you haven’t been proactively managing your own mental health, start now. Lead by example because actions often speak louder than words.
What am I missing? If you have recommendations beyond these 10 things, please share them in the comments below.