If your teenager is showing signs of depression, but won't get help, don't give up on them. Here are five things you can do to help a depressed teenager who doesn't want help.
Help your teenager

How to help a depressed teenager who doesn’t want help

If your teenager is showing signs of depression, but won’t get help, don’t give up on them. Here are a few things you can do as a parent to help a depressed teenager who doesn’t want help.

When you spot signs of depression in your teenager, the experts will tell you find a therapist. Talk openly with your teen. Listen more than you talk. Don’t judge or try to fix things. Encourage a healthy lifestyle. Limit screen time and social media. Make sure they eat well, sleep well, get exercise and fresh air.

But how do you help a teenager who doesn’t want help?

What do you do when you see them self-medicating? Or what if, when you try to take their phone away at night, they scream obscenities at you. How do you get them to exercise when they won’t get out of bed? What if they’ll neither talk nor listen to you? If the consequences you lay down as a parent don’t seem to matter?

Having been there, done that, here are a few things you can do as a parent to help a depressed teenager who doesn’t want help.

1. Learn everything you can about depression

Depression is a beast. A shapeshifter. It can manifest itself in a million different ways. As a parent on the frontlines, it’s helpful to know what you’re up against. So, take this time to learn as much as you can about the illness.

If you haven’t already, find a mental health care professional you can talk to about your teenager. Let them know the sorts of things you’re dealing with and ask them for suggestions.

Also, do some online research. Child Mind Institute and NAMI are good online resources for parents of teens with depression.

So, too, is The Hilarious World of Depression, a free podcast, produced by American Public Radio.

The host, John Moe, interviews comedians, musicians, actors and writers about their experience with the illness. Most of them developed depression in their adolescence, and hearing them talk about what it was like is helpful.

2. Keep track of their symptoms

As soon as you notice signs of depression, start a journal to keep track of symptoms so that when the times comes, you’ll have an accurate health record to share with a professional.

Be on the lookout for signs of declining health, suicidal ideation or self-harm. The Columbia Protocol and helplines are helpful if you’re unsure if your child is at risk.

If they’re not in crisis, keep an eye on the basics. Are they sleeping? Are they eating? Getting exercise? Socializing? Self-medicating. When they’re low, how long do episodes last? And what do they do during that time. It’s helpful to know how depression shows up in their life.

And, on the flip side, what do they do when they seem to be having better days? Make note of those happier times, and be ready for them.

Those brief moments, when depression ebbs, are windows of opportunity to try to talk with your teen, and encourage them to get help or practice self-care.

3. Exercise your parental rights, but pick your battles

While I think it’s absolutely true that teenagers need boundaries, I’ve also found the rules change when your teenager is depressed.

Their illness may be preventing them from holding up their end of the parent-child relationship. Or they might just be acting like jerks. It’s hard to tell sometimes.

So with this in mind, my advice is to exercise your parental rights, but pick your battles. Decide what you are unwilling to put up with, be clear about those rules and consequences, and keep your sights set on your ultimate goal.

To do this, I like to keep in mind the 80/20 rule that says 20% of my actions will achieve 80% of my results. If there are ten things I could do to try to keep my kids on track for a healthy and happy life, what are the two that are going to have the biggest impact?

For me, sleep and screen time are the big ones. If my kids get a decent night’s sleep, I figure we have a chance at a better tomorrow. And if they cross the line, phones are the first to go. A very effective punishment, which infuriates them, but also kills a few birds with one stone.

My 80/20 rule means I also let a lot of the other stuff go. Sometimes, I worry I’m way too lenient. That I’m part of the problem. That I should insist on family dinners. Up by 9am during COVID even when there’s nothing to do all day. Clean rooms. Clean clothes. It’s entirely possible.

But having seen the darker side of severe depression, I also know that a messy room, a messy appearance, incomplete chores, and poor grades, don’t really matter when your child wants to die. So, if my ultimate goal is to get my kids to get help, I try to build as many bridges as possible, rather than blow things up day after day.

4. Given them helpful resources

In this post I wrote about three things you could do to build a bit of a safety net for your kids’ mental health: Tell your teenager you’d gladly get them help if they wanted it; plan for challenging experiences in your teen’s life; and teach them how to help their friends who may have mental health challenges.

Here are a few more resources you can email or text your kids if you see they’re struggling, but won’t agree to get help.

  1. Big White Wall is an online platform for teenagers to get peer to peer support. It’s anonymous and offers 24-hour support, 7 days a week with clinically managed forums. Kids must be 16 years old to register.
  2. Wellness and Emotional Support for Youth Online offers free online counselling for Ontario-based kids ages 13 – 24. There are no fees, which means your teenager can access a professional counsellor without your involvement, which may be exactly what they want.
  3. Kids Help Phone is another 24/7 online support service, accessible by phone, text, and live chat. Unlike Big White Wall, there are no age restrictions and while your kids probably know about it, it can’t hurt to remind them it’s there if they need it.

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