Teenage depression is more common than many realize, and the COVID-19 pandemic has further escalated the need for teen mental health support. In fact, a recent study shows that one in four youth globally are experiencing clinically elevated depression symptoms.1
Partly due to the stigma that surrounds mental health and the stereotype of typical teen moodiness, many teens experience mental health distress without ever receiving care. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to depression, there are several well researched tactics parents can try when supporting a depressed or anxious teen.
We sat down with Dayna Browne, head of the EHN Online’s program for teen mental health, to identify the top 10 ways that parents can help support a teen who is experiencing depression. Check out Dayna’s quick tips in the video below, or read on!
Is my teenager depressed?
The first thing you want to consider is whether your teen is experiencing depression or puberty. While many of the symptoms and signs overlap, both the severity and duration of symptoms can tell you whether these are normal occurrences of growing up or whether something more serious is happening.
Signs to watch for can include:
- Increased sadness, sensitivity, or irritability
- Loss of interest in things they used to enjoy
- Changes to eating or sleeping habits
- Little energy and motivation
- Feelings of being worthless, or hopelessness about their future
- Decline in school grades
- Inexplicable aches and pains
- A new social circle, or withdrawal from friends 1
Not all signs are required to diagnose someone with depression. Also note that depression may present slightly different in teens than in adults. As an example, teens may appear to be more irritable than sad.
Still not sure if it’s depression or puberty? The answer often lies in the duration of the symptoms listed above. If symptoms persist for two weeks or more, they may have depression. Keep reading for a few ways to help support teenagers struggling with their mental health.
1. Speak openly and frequently about mental health
Talking about mental health openly and normalizing struggles sets a safe environment for youth to feel more comfortable opening up and asking for help. Conversations might also give insight into what’s causing or contributing to their depression and what type of support they need.
When speaking to your teen, your tone of voice should be calm, and your words should be free of judgement. Teens experiencing depression may be particularly sensitive to criticism, so acknowledging their feelings and asking them what they think might help without interrupting or judging can be a helpful approach. Many teens may have an idea of what they need already. Try to be flexible and open to their thoughts and suggestions.
2. Support a healthy lifestyle
Research shows that physical health affects mental health. Proper sleep, nutrition, and exercise are all important factors in one’s mood.
In a systematic review on exercise as a treatment for depression, researchers concluded that exercise appeared to be an effective treatment for depression, improving depressive symptoms as effectively as psychotherapy and medication.2 The study also found that even modest levels of exercise are associated with improvements in mood. Getting teens to exercise regularly is crucial.2
When it comes to nutrition, what we eat impacts every aspect of our health, including our mental health.3 Ensuring teens are eating nutritious food that supports their growth and hormones can help regulate their mood.
We can’t forget the importance of sleep. Sleep contributes to virtually every system of the body. It empowers the immune system, helps regulate hormones, and enables muscle and tissue recovery.4 Supporting your teen’s physical wellness is a great way to support their mental wellness.
3. Create structure
Consistency and structure are important for regulating the mood of teens. Small daily routines such as a set dinner time every night can have a big impact on their wellness. If your teen’s mood is particularly impacted in the winter months, try to get them to rise with the sun for maximum sun exposure.
Creating a structure around social media can also be extremely effective. Excessive social media use is linked with both poorer sleep and mental health. One study found that social media use can contribute directly to worsened mental health, or indirectly through poorer sleep.5 Having set times for things like social media and rest can help support a stable mood.
4. Always be consistent
When setting boundaries for teens, whether it be regarding their social media use, schedule, or house rules, consistency is key. This includes maintaining consistency in your own actions, emotions, and reactions. Many of the strategies listed in this blog require consistency to work (one night of good sleep isn’t enough!), so do what you can to stick to the boundaries you set for yourself and your teen.
Consistency is also very important when communicating with your teen. Depressed or not, teens are experiencing hormonal shifts and strong emotions that can make communication difficult. While you can’t control their emotions, you can regulate your own to help provide balance and consistency. Your teen needs to feel safe talking to you, and that means your mood needs to be stable, so they are not worried about you over-reactions or judgement if they come to you with a problem. Try to avoid being hot then cold, strict then lenient, etc. Another way to ensure consistency for your teen is to be on the same page as your parenting partner.
5. Teach and practice relaxation techniques
Meditation, yoga, deep breathing, and grounding exercises are all excellent for mood regulation and staying present. Grounding and mindfulness exercises do not have to be as formal as going to a class. Even encouraging your teen to take a moment to themselves when they are feeling overwhelmed can be helpful. For more simple exercises, see here.
It may take some time to find an exercise that works for your teen, but keep trying! The benefits speak for themselves. One study review found that mindfulness-based meditation is a helpful approach to the treatment of anxiety and depression. Combined with aerobic exercise, mindfulness was shown to be even more effective and to have immediate results.6
6. Encourage FUN!
Teens get stressed too. Pressure from school, extra-curriculars, and peers can all contribute to feelings of depression or anxiety. Make sure to encourage your teen to have fun. If they have lost interest in hobbies (a common symptom of depression), explore new hobbies with them! This can be a great way to improve mood and get them excited about new things.
In addition, hobbies provide an opportunity to bond socially – with you, with friends, or with new people. According to Dayna Browne, RSW, MSW, BSW, “Fun can act as an outlet for releasing pent up emotions and also exploring their core values.”
7. Encourage positive relationships
When it comes to mental health, we know that social isolation is unhealthy. Encouraging positive relationships for your child, whether it be with family members, peers, or other trusted adults can go a long way in fostering positive emotions. Finding a group activity they like can be a great place to start.
If they aren’t connecting with peers, or are having trouble socializing at school, keep trying new outlets, but be sure to offer companionship from yourself as well! Mental health and family relationships are linked, so don’t discount the impact your support has. When adolescents feel like they are not alone, or have a better sense of belonging, it contributes to positive emotional wellness.7
8: Create an emergency plan
Having an emergency plan in place can ease the minds of both you and your teen. Dayna Browne says that in a mental health emergency, a plan “creates feelings of control when your teen may feel they have none.” This could be as simple as calling a designated person (like a grandparent or aunt), going for a walk, contacting a helpline, or practicing a grounding technique. Even if they never have to use the strategy you create together, knowing they have a plan in case of emergency can be comforting.
9: Educate yourself about mental health
Did you know that a common search query on Google is “why don’t parents understand mental health?” This suggests that children involved in a mental health struggle are experiencing a disconnect and lack of beneficial communication with their parents. Your interest and concern for the mental health of your teen will go along way in helping them to feel their best. And the work you do to understand and support their mental health as teens will lead to them becoming more resilient adults.
Educating yourself on the topic of teen mental health can further improve your efforts to support a struggling teen. For more information on teen mental health, you can check out these additional resources:
10. Seek outside help
If you have tried to support your teen’s mental and physical wellness, but they continue to struggle, consider seeking outside help. Many different options exist for supporting and treating depression in teens. Treatment could include speaking with your family doctor, trying medication, communicating with a high school guidance counsellor, seeking peer support, or enrolling in a more formal program.
Many places offer youth mental health services, and they are increasingly being offered online. You and your teen do not need to handle this alone. There are mental health practitioners and resources out there to support you.
Canada’s best program for teen mental health can help.
As much as we want it to, sometimes an enhanced routine or a fun hobby is not enough for to overcome depression. If you feel like you and your teen could use more support, consider a teen program such as the Healthy Minds Comprehensive Teen Program at EHN Online, an expert-led program that provides guidance, support and education to depressed or anxious teens and their caregivers.
EHN’s program is a virtual, structured, evidence-based outpatient program that helps teens cope without removing them from their normal patterns and routines. It is suitable for those experiencing symptoms of depression and/or anxiety and need more support than counselling or medication alone can provide.
Attending a formal program shows teens that they are not alone in their struggles, teaches them strategies to cope and feel better, and gives them the comprehensive support they need. It also ensures that teens and caregivers are on the same page about mental health and best practices. Give us a call to discuss your options and see if the Healthy Minds Comprehensive Teen Program is a good fit for your teen and your family.
1 Racine, N., McArthur, B. A., Cooke, J. E., Eirich, R., Zhu, J., & Madigan, S. (2021). Global Prevalence of Depressive and Anxiety Symptoms in Children and Adolescents During COVID-19: A Meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatrics, 175(11), 1142–1150. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.2482
2 Blumenthal, J. A., Smith, P. J., & Hoffman, B. M. (2012). Is Exercise a Viable Treatment for Depression?. ACSM’s health & fitness journal, 16(4), 14–21. https://doi.org/10.1249/01.FIT.0000416000.09526.eb
3 MPH, M. T., MD. (2018, February 22). Diet and depression. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/diet-and-depression-2018022213309
4 Sleep for Teenagers. (2009, April 17). Sleep Foundation. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/teens-and-sleep
5 Alonzo, R., Hussain, J., Stranges, S., & Anderson, K. K. (2021). Interplay between social media use, sleep quality, and mental health in youth: A systematic review. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 56, 101414. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.smrv.2020.101414
6 Saeed, S. A., Cunningham, K., & Bloch, R. M. (2019). Depression and Anxiety Disorders: Benefits of Exercise, Yoga, and Meditation. American Family Physician, 99(10), 620–627.
7 Loades, M. E., Chatburn, E., Higson-Sweeney, N., Reynolds, S., Shafran, R., Brigden, A., Linney, C., McManus, M. N., Borwick, C., & Crawley, E. (2020). Rapid Systematic Review: The Impact of Social Isolation and Loneliness on the Mental Health of Children and Adolescents in the Context of COVID-19. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 59(11), 1218-1239.e3. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaac.2020.05.009