Counselling depressed teenagers

Sometimes it’s slightly easier being a parent of a young child––when they need help it’s easy to swoop in. 

But when your child gets older and their problems and challenges become more complex, it’s best that the parent transition into more of a supportive role.

This is especially true for teenagers who are battling with depression. 

Signs your child is battling depression:

  • They’ve lost interest in things they previously used to really enjoy;
  • They’ve been sad or irritable most of the day, most days in a week for at least two weeks;
  • They report feeling worthless, hopeless about their future, or guilty about things that aren’t their fault;
  • Their eating and/or sleeping habits have changed;
  • They have little energy and little motivation to do just about anything;
  • They are finding it hard to concentrate;
  • Their school grades have dropped; 
  • They’ve had thoughts of suicide. If so, treat the thoughts seriously, and get professional help. If there is an imminent threat, get them to an Emergency Department straight away.

There are some things that you as a parent can do to help your teenager.

Be supportive

Working on your relationship with your teenager is so important. Try to build empathy and understanding, try putting yourself in their shoes. It can be frustrating when they are miserable and irritable most of the time and don’t appear to be doing much to help themselves get better, but if there isn’t much in their life that brings them joy, or they’ve experienced something extremely disappointing, it’s understandable that they may avoid things and retreat to the safety of their room.

Remember: depression makes doing even the smallest thing more difficult.
Try to validate their feelings, not their unhealthy behaviour. Don’t beat them up about not ‘taking charge of things’. Instead, ask them questions like, “It seems as though you’ve been really down lately. Is that true?” You want to ask them for their feelings, not problem-solve for them. Let them know you have faith in their ability to find a solution.  Ask them questions about their mood, without being critical or emotional. Don’t be judgemental, or try to solve their problems. Listening to them talk about their emotions might seem like you are giving in to the negative, but in reality you are letting your teen know that you hear them and that you are trying to understand, not fix them. We all know that people don’t like to be ‘fixed’. 

For some parents, this can feel passive, as though you’re not doing enough. But being there for them and communicating your acceptance is exactly what they need from you right now. It’s actually a very active way to strengthen your relationship.

Accentuate the positive

Notice and comment on the positive things your teen is doing: like still going to school, holding down a part-time job, doing the dishes, picking up their sibling from sports practice. These are good things they are doing, and it’s important to recognise them for it. After all, don’t we all like to be appreciated and told we’re doing a good job, even when it’s expected of us?
How many positive things have you said to them today? How many negative things? How many times have you mentioned their problems or tried to fix them? The positives should outweigh the negatives. Let them know that you’re proud of them for what they are doing. They’ll appreciate that, even if they don’t show it. 

Likewise, there’s no point in mentioning that you’re disappointed that they aren’t hanging out with friends so much these days, or aren’t playing the piano or guitar anymore. They probably feel disappointed too. They don’t want to feel depressed, and if they could snap their fingers and feel better they would. 

Helping your teen get help

Some teens will be open to the idea of therapy when you mention it, and some won’t. These teens aren’t going to suddenly open up to the idea of therapy (or to you) quickly. The best you can do is to guide them towards treatment by opening the door and then waiting patiently for them to walk through it at their own pace. 

Be aware that your teen might tell you to back off. That’s fine; it’s their way–– albeit a slightly irritable one––of telling you that they need space. It’s normal for teenagers to want independence, and it’s important for you to respect that. You can respond by saying, “I’ll give you more space, but know that I’m here for you if you ever want to talk or hear my suggestions.” Keep the doors of communication open, and remember to show empathy and respect. 

Medication has been shown to be very effective in managing teenage depression. It is particularly effective when used in conjunction with therapy. Cognitive behavioural therapy (which is what I use when counselling teenagers) has been shown to be very effective when used in combination with medication, or as a stand-alone treatment

Why treatment might not be working

Treatment works best when the person being treated truly wants to get better. It’s not so effective when the person (your teen) isn’t committed to it, or are going along to please someone else (probably you). But laying the foundation now for a healthy relationship with your depressed teen means that they will likely turn to you for support when they are ready. 

Also, the therapeutic relationship between your teen and the therapist is key to success. Not every therapist is right for every client. You are certainly within  your rights to change therapist at any stage. But before you do, discuss this with the therapist first; many times, the therapy and/or the therapeutic relationship can be improved with polite, honest feedback. 

Taking care of you

Don’t forget in all of this focus on your teen that it’s important to take care of yourself. It can be emotionally exhausting being the parent of a teenager struggling with depression. Make sure you take the time to do things you enjoy and that replenish your batteries. Go out with friends. ‘Happy parent = happier teenager’ still applies. 


If you would like to discuss your teenagers’ mental health further, please feel free to use my contact form, or email me.

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