Getting help, Lessons learned

Lesson #9: What to do if you spot signs of depression in your teenager

As a parent, it’s important to know what to do if you think you spot signs of depression in your teenager, because depression left untreated can get worse. Equally important, in the early stages, common teenage behaviour can aggrevate the illness.

If you read Lesson #1: How to Spot Signs of Depression in Teenagers, you’ll know that I missed the signs of depression in my daughter for months. She didn’t tick the usual boxes. At least not that I could see at the time.

I’m more educated now and much more attuned to when the fog’s rolling in. Here are some things I’d recommend you do if you think you spot signs of depression in your teenager.

What to do if your teenager shows signs of depression
Photo by Caleb George on Unsplash
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 questions

Simple ones, like “how are you?” Or, “Do you need help with anything?” I find the car to be by far the most effective environment to get the goods out of a teenager. Offer to drive them somewhere. Anywhere they’ll go and then pry gently. Even if they’re tight-lipped, remind them that that you’re there if they need help with anything. They won’t look at you, but that’s the secret sauce: talking while driving makes it perfectly acceptable for your teen to avoid making eye contact.

3. Get help

If you think you spot signs of depression, start looking for help. Start with your family doctor to rule out any physical issues. An underactive thyroid hormone can cause symptoms similar to depression. It may also be easier to get your teen to a medical doctor versus a therapist as a first step. But also, try to get them to talk to someone. This is far easier said than done. This article from VeryWellMind has some suggestions for getting your teen to talk to a therapist. It goes without saying, if your child is in immediate danger, take them to emergency.

4. 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.

5. Limit time spent on devices

As soon as you spot signs 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 suicidal and you haven’t done this, restricting screen time becomes a lot trickier. If you want to know why I’m so hung up on screen time read Lesson #5.

6. 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.

7. Start educating yourself about depression

Depression is a beast. For parents, it’s like dealing with an obnoxious, belligerent kid who’s so clearly a bad influence on your child. No matter what you say or do, your kid is drawn to depression, enamoured by it, convinced to do things they might never have considered on their own. And you’re powerless to stop it. Depression will say horrible things to your child and will make your teenager say horrible things to you at times. This can make parenting exasperating and upsetting. But the more your teenager pushes you away, or the more they hurl at you, you need to stand firm and present.

8. Take care of yourself

Self-care is equally important. Managing depression, making room for it in your house is difficult. Your child’s mental health also makes you think more about your own. Not just because doctors will start to ask you about your family history with mental illness, but because dealing with depression is emotionally draining. If your reserves are low or if worry is interrupting your sleep, you may quickly find yourself facing your own mental health challenges. I’m convinced that depression is just a place on a spectrum. It’s easy to slide around if we’re not mindful of our own mental health.

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