Helping Teens Cope with Depression
Depression in teens is a serious health problem that changes the way teens think, feel and act. Teens with depression tend to have a negative view of the future, unrealistic expectations, feelings of helplessness and harsh self-talk. They feel sad and/or irritable most of the time.
Child psychologists at The Pratt Center work with depressed teens, teaching them coping strategies for overcoming depression. Below are some strategies and interventions that our therapists may use to support depressed teens and their parents.
- Self-Talk Self-talk is so automatic that many teens do not recognize how negative thoughts can directly impact their behavior. Their thoughts about daily events lead to their feelings and can influence their actions. Teens can learn to control this negative self-talk, to gain perspective on situations, and to focus on more positive and practical solutions. With increased awareness of negative self-talk, teens can learn to take more active control of their reactions to events, and they can change their own behaviors.
- Distorted Thinking Closely related to self-talk is distorted thinking. We all have unique ways of looking at events that occur, which largely impact our behaviors. Depressed teens tend to have distorted thinking patterns that reinforce negative self-talk, thoughts and feelings. For example, after learning they did not make the debate team a depressed teen may say, “I’m not surprised. I always fail at everything I do. Why do I even try?” Overgeneralizing occurs when teens expect an avalanche of negative events because of one isolated incident. There are a range of other common distortions in thinking that are common for teens with depression, and a therapist can help to identify and discuss these to help put events in perspective.
- Healthy Habits We encourage teens with depression to lead healthy lives as much as possible. Practicing healthy habits like exercise, stress relief, relaxation, adequate sleep, and healthy nutrition are critical for combating depression in teens. Parents should work to minimize junk food, reduce screen time and enjoy family activities together. Even minor changes in healthy habits can boost the energy level and emotional resilience in teens with depression.
- Family Stress Family stress can make depression in teens worse. Parents often become highly critical of depressed teens because they notice declining grades, poor grooming, decreased motivation and irritability. Parents may see depressed teens as lazy and oppositional. This misconception may lead parents to criticize and punish teens who are already feeling overwhelmed and misunderstood. Try instead to reduce the conflict in the teen's life and minimize stress in the home so that depressed teens have a place that is safe, loving and accepting.
- Affirmations Depressed teens are often not behaving well. They may be doing poorly in school, withdrawing from peers and arguing with parents. Nevertheless, it is important to focus on anything positive a teen has done. Positive comments about your teen's efforts to learn new behaviors, participate in peer activities, and problem-solve can help your teen to manage their depressive thoughts and feelings. Your caring words, smiles and presence can greatly improve your teen’s ability to learn positive life skills. By focusing on their strengths and encouraging your teen to participate in activities they enjoy, you are affirming your teen’s unique qualities. You are also showing your love of them and hope for their future.
- Relaxation Techniques Relaxation techniques are important ways to help your teen calm down, focus, and diffuse stressful situations. Teaching teens to use relaxation skills such as visualization, deep breathing, prayer or meditation are other ways you can help your teen develop coping skills. Asking teens what they already do to help themselves to feel better and encouraging them to focus on those healthy skills are important ways parents can encourage teens to build on the skills they already practice.
- Helping Others Small acts of kindness can create more opportunities for your teen to think positive thoughts that lead to positive feelings. When teens help others, they begin to forget about their own pain. Cutting the grass for an elderly neighbor, opening the door at the grocery store for a mother and her children, or volunteering at the local homeless shelter are just a few ways depressed teens can help others and in turn help themselves.
- Communication Proper communication is an important skill for everyone to learn, including teens. There are many aspects of proper communication that can help teens diffuse depressive thoughts. For example, listening attentively, clearly stating their true desires, owning their emotions, and using first person statements (e.g. When you ignore my texts I feel….) improves a teen’s communication skills. Better communication skills often lead to better interpersonal relationships. By listening to your teen, being nonjudgmental, and validating their feelings, you can support your teen’s ability to effectively communicate their feelings.
- Realistic Thinking Depressed people tend to have unrealistic expectations of themselves and others. Assisting your teen to set realistic, attainable goals is an important way you can encourage your teen to have a more compassionate approach to life in general. Goals should be short-term, and they should have a very high likelihood of success.
- Pleasure in Life Encouraging teens to discover what activities they enjoy and then making plans for how they can add more of these activities to their day are ways parents can assist teens to shift their focus to the pleasurable aspects of life. For example, if your teen has always wanted to learn to play the guitar but never took the initiative to accomplish this goal, then you can support them by asking around or searching online for guitar lessons in your area. By encouraging your child to place a higher value on the process of doing an activity opposed to the end product, you can help them to let go of the need to measure themselves against some societal standard.
- Peer Activities Encouraging your teen to be involved in peer activities that enhance their life is another way you can help your teen cope with depression. These activities can include team sports, scouts, or other organized activity. There are many ways you can facilitate healthy peer relationships by opening your home to your teen’s friends or supporting your teen’s involvement in extracurricular activities. Teens who have a difficult time interacting with their peers may also benefit from rehearsing social situations or additional social skills training.