Concerned about rising rates of depression among teenagers? You’re not alone. Whether your teen is depressed, or you just want to be prepared, you may be wondering: what can parents do to support a teenager struggling with depression? 

We posed this question to Saun-Toy Trotter (pictured right), clinical director of UCSF’s school-based behavioral health programs and parent of a 14-year-old. Saun-Toy says parenting a teen can be both terrific and terrifying. When you add depression, the balancing act becomes even more complicated: Parents need to be highly sensitive to their teens’ safety, while also supporting their growing need for independence. 

Saun-Toy Trotter

How does depression manifest in teenagers?  

Often people think of depression as sadness or melancholy. For adolescents, depression can look like sadness, but it can also look like anger or irritation. You might think, ‘Oh they’re just being a teenager’, but if an irritable, angry mood persists for over two weeks, it could be depression.  

Other symptoms can include changes in appetite and sleep, lack of motivation, not finding pleasure in past times they once enjoyed, not connecting well with peers, self-harm, and preoccupation with death or suicide.

What can parents do to support a teen who shows signs of depression?

Start with the big three: Are they eating, sleeping, and moving? Can you help them tweak one of those areas – adjust their sleep, move more, eat three small meals a day even if they don’t have an appetite.  

Stay connected. It’s your teen’s developmental task to push you away and take risks, but they still need the love, safety, and stability that you provide. Let them push away and be there when they come back.

Structure, routine, and family rituals can provide a sense of safety and relaxation. Have a regular family meal. Schedule a weekly movie night. Engage in healthy coping practices together, like going to the gym or taking walks. Invite your teen to family rituals and celebrations, even if they decide not to go. Empower them to help plan these family moments. 

Validate their feelings and emotions, even if you don’t understand those feelings and even if they seem extreme. Acknowledge what they’re doing well and celebrate their achievements. 

It’s also important to reduce screen time and social media use and have direct conversations about sex, alcohol, and drug use

What if the depression becomes more severe? 

Invite your teen to seek therapy. As parents, we can direct our young people toward therapy but unless there’s a safety concern, we shouldn't force it. Propose therapy as a choice, as something to try, even once. Empower them to choose a therapist who makes them feel safe. 

Encourage your older teen or young adult to make decisions about their own mental health, including whether to initiate medication. Let them know it’s ok to try psychiatric medications, and that they can always step back or make a different choice. Teens need to understand their diagnosis and treatment options and be part of these decisions, because they’re going to be making these choices throughout their lives. 

If your teen is expressing suicidal thoughts, meet them with compassion and acknowledge that they’re hurting. Give them the space to talk about what they’re experiencing. Reach out to a professional or suicide resources, such as dialing 988. For residents of Alameda County, there is also a text line: Text SAFE to 20121 between 8am and 12pm, seven days a week. 

What other resources are available to parents? 

Talk to your pediatrician and reach out to your child’s school. Even if you don’t have access to insurance or are facing a long wait time for care, most schools do have some sort of behavioral health service, which is a great place to start. 

And remember, we all have mental health. Parenting can be both delightful and demanding. Which is why it’s so important for parents to take care of their own mental health as well. 

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