Teen depression has become increasingly on every parent’s minds. With all the news about teen pressures, addiction, self-harm, and suicide, it is no surprise that parents of teens are becoming more and more worried.
In my practice with teens and their parents, we talk about what is 'brewing' underneath all that unexpected and harmful behaviour. And often what we find as we begin to unpack all the thoughts and feelings behind those behaviours, is a storm.
When Anne came into my office, one rainy spring morning, she was clearly bringing a storm with her. As I greeted her and her Mom at the door, I could feel both of their tension and anger towards each other.
Anne stormed past me into the room and plunked herself down on the couch; she starred out the window. I came and sat across from her; she did not greet me with her normal warm smile today.
"I can see you are really tense right now, and maybe a little angry. I'm here when you are ready." I said, turning my body towards her.
She finally broke the silence, after what felt like an eternity (4-minutes is a long time to stand in the eye-of-a-storm— as any parent would agree)
She glared at me through rigid eyes, "you know I didn't want to come today." I gathered up my most open-inquisitive tone, "oh? what part of you didn't want to come today?".
She responded, with a less open-inquisitive tone.
"Uh, the part that wanted to sleep in. The part that didn't want to talk about my feelings today. The part doesn't really care what she thinks."
I sank into my chair. Deep breath. Ah ha. There is the pain brewing-up this storm.
"I am guessing she is your Mom? Just a guess, so need your help here." I said.
"Yep. That's her. She thinks I shouldn't go out anymore until my grades get better. Like that's ever gonna happen." She said.
"Help me out again here. What is never gonna happen?" I said —fully knowing she was referring to her grades getting better, but wanting her to feel the full weight of her words, and enter in a little deeper into her emotions. She responds, this time looking out the window "My grades. They suck. And I know they will never get better."
"Ah," I say taking a deep exaggerated breath. "No wonder you just wanted to sleep-in this morning. I would too with that story playing on repeat in my head. I can imagine, you feel kinda helpless hearing that story?"
She looked at me again, "Yep. And she is taking away the only thing that makes me feel good. My friends."
We spend the rest of the session circling around her feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, fears, and sadness around her perceived failures at school. Once a high-achieving student, her recent string of low marks had caused a cascade of fears and doubts around her own self-worth. When these fears and doubts became too intense— both inside and outside our session— Anne's defensive strategy was to blame and get angry at others; our work together this day was to explore how this particular defensive strategy was no longer serving her.
Like Anne, Teens experiencing depression don't always show the classic symptoms. When we think of depression, we often think of: sadness, appetite changes, and sleep problems. But many parents are surprised to learn that along with general sadness and hopelessness, depression in teens can look like:
- Irritability, anger or hostility
- Poor performance in school
- Withdrawal from friends and activities
- Lack of enthusiasm, energy or motivation
- Overreaction to criticism
- Tearfulness or frequent crying
- Poor self-esteem or guilt
- Difficulty making decisions
- Difficulty concentrating
- Unexplained aches and pains
- Restlessness and agitation
- Changes in eating or sleeping
- Problems with authority
So, what can parents do if they are concerned their teenager might be depressed?
A connection is key when you are worried your teen is struggling with depression. This can become especially hard when your teen is moody, grumpy, irritable, and angry towards you. I have adapted a tool from Dr Dan Siegel's (my favorite Neuropsychiatrist) Four S's of Attachment Parenting to help me connect with teens during harder times.
Here are my top 4 go to tips of connecting with your teen when you are worried about them:
- Seen: This doesn't just mean looking at them (this will most likely be met with an eye roll). For me, it means taking a deep breath (or walking away and coming back to the conversation after a short break from each other) and really trying to show them I am getting that they are struggling. In my session with Anna, that meant not taking her grumpy-mood personally, taking a deep breath, and simply letting her know that I got she was angry/sad/grumpy, and was concerned but was willing to wait until she was ready to talk.
- Safe: When we are feeling any big emotions, our brains put us on high alert. So, when your teen is feeling stressed, angry, sad, or anxious, we really need to create safety for them. Your tone of voice should be low and soothing, I always like to be sitting when talking with a teen (even if they are not), and I really try to stay open and curious in the conversation. I also like to ask a teen "Do you just need to vent about this, or are needing some help?"; choices help to nurture safety.
- Soothed: All parents are masters at soothing their children as infants and toddlers, but believe it or not, your teen needs to be soothed just as much (heck, we all do). You will know what is soothing for your teen, and if you don't know you can ask them. You might say "hey, I know this isn't really fun stuff to talk about. Would it help if we put on some music/ate a snack/paint your nails/went and grabbed a tea or hot chocolate?"
- Secure: Ultimately, we want our teen to develop a mindset that helps that grow and become resilient. We want our teens to be good problem-solvers, and to feel empowered to make good choices. You may have the best solution for your teen's problems, but often your uninvited solution will be met with resistance. It is best to say things like "I am here if you need help to solve this, but I know you have what it takes to solve this", "you let me know if you need me, and until then I'm just here to listen okay?", "I see how hard this is for you. You tell me what you need from me because I know you will figure this out". Often these statements will end with your teen asking for your guidance; if not, don't it personally, because she will certainly come back again to talk to you in the future.
When to really worry about your teen's mood?
Parents often reach out to me because they aren't really sure if they should be worried. They know something just isn't 'right', but aren't sure if they are reading too much into it. When I talk with these parents I ask them the following questions:
- How long have you noticed this change?
- Have you seen this before in them?
- How are they coping?
- Could they benefit from learning new ways of coping with stress, anger, worries, or sadness?
If you feel your teen could benefit from talking to me, I invite you to connect with me to receive a complimentary phone parent consultation.
Michelle Brans MACP RP
Over the past decade, I have helped hundreds of families and teens navigate successfully into adulthood. In todays busy world, teens are finding it more and more difficult to stay focused and aligned with their goals, and ultimately their true-selves. My specialization is in helping teen girls (ages 12-24) develop resiliency to overcome: stress, anxiety, depression, disordered eating, self-harm, addictive behaviour, school challenges, and conflict with parents. My holistic approach combines psycho-education, emotion-focused therapy, mindfulness, cognitive and dialectical behaviour therapy.