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Basic Dad: How Do I Talk to My Teen About Their Depression?

Advice from a family therapist, a former depressed teen, a poet, and others

When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.

The Very Basic Concern

As someone who struggled mightily with depression in their teens, but never received much help or support from my parents in dealing with it, I’ve always worried about how I’d handle such an affliction with my own kids. And now, as my 14-year-old becomes more sullen and withdrawn, spending hours locked in his room listening to gloomy music, I’m already questioning my instincts on how best to approach it.

On the one hand, I don’t want to smother him with support, making him feel self-conscious and scaring him off of asking for help when he needs it because he thinks I’m overreacting to every little thing already. On the other, I want him to know that I’ve lived this — a version of it, at least — and that I’m there in whatever capacity he needs me.

I don’t blame my parents for their handling of my problems — the Baby Boomer generation isn’t exactly high on empathy in general, let alone when it comes to mental health issues — but I do believe that a lot of what I went through (the self-harm, the reliance on alcohol, the years of anxiety that followed) could have been mitigated somewhat if they’d stepped in to offer support in a practical way beyond telling me to “pull myself together.” I want to be the parent I wish I’d had, I suppose.

Of course, there’s always a chance that this is just run-of-the-mill teenage angst I’m witnessing, but I’d like to be sure. Basically: How do I talk to my teen about their depression?

The Expert Advice

Theresa Russo, PhD in human development and family studies: Teen depression is a huge issue now. According to which studies you look at, suicide is the second or third leading cause of death in adolescents, and in many communities, there’s a real lack of mental health resources. One of the difficulties is that parents don’t know if their child is dealing with something that’s significant or if it’s just normal adolescent behavior. And honestly, it’s hard to know, so erring on the side of caution is probably better.

You’ll want to watch out for changes in their behavior. So if they become really moody or apathetic, or if you notice changes that are affecting how they function, you’ll want to let them know that they can talk to you. Explain to them that it’s a difficult time, and let them know that, while you’re still going to hold them accountable, they’re going to make mistakes and that you’re here to help guide them through those mistakes. The good thing is that today adolescents are more likely to talk to their parents than those in the past, so hopefully your child sees you as a go-to person to talk about these issues. Really, it’s about knowing your kid and offering them that if they need to talk to someone, you’ll help be that person or find them that resource.

Another way to help is to try to help reduce your child’s anxiety. So many kids are anxious now because so much is expected of them: We expect them to do well in school and on standardized testing, and you can’t just be on a team — you have to be the captain of the team, or they’re not just in a club, they have to be the president of the club.

We’ve elevated the level of all these things to help prepare them for the future, but it’s resulting in a lot of anxious kids. To help ease that anxiety, set boundaries. A 14-year-old should never be up all night to finish a homework assignment. And while you can support their interests, also be the voice of reason and help them manage expectations. These are environmental factors that this generation faces, and while you can’t stop these forces completely, it would help to recognize how much you and others are expecting of your child.

Elizabeth, who struggled with depression as a teen: When I was a teenager dealing with depression, the world felt hazy, like there was a cloud over me. I felt like I was out of control. In that haze, people often end up reaching out to others who are just as depressed and broken as they are, and they end up perpetuating that cycle of depression.

My depression came from trauma, and while many things happened to me in those years, the most significant was losing my grandmother, who was in many ways my primary caretaker and the only steady presence in my life. When she passed, there was no one to guide me through my feelings. As a teenager going through that, you don’t know what you need. In my case, I had people call me a “bad kid” because I was acting out; I had a guidance counselor who told me I wouldn’t amount to anything, and I had a mother who didn’t know how to cope, so she went away as well.

I did have some resources that helped me — I had a family therapist and group therapy. I also did beauty pageants, which helped to boost my self-esteem. I met other girls there who had low self-esteem, too. In addition to that, I’d gotten in so much trouble as a kid that the school advised my mom to send me away to this outward bound type of experience for at-risk teens through the Girl Scouts. There, I learned a lot of skills by living in the wilderness for three weeks.

But what I really needed and I didn’t get was a mom who was more self-aware. My mom could have gotten help for herself a lot sooner than she did. Knowing she had a young, vulnerable girl, she could have stayed home with her and gone to therapy herself before she ended up making a lot of mistakes and getting me taken away from her. While I know my mother was grieving over the loss of her own mother, instead of dealing with things, she left me home alone. A parent needs to be aware of themselves and their child.

Katie Helpley, family therapist: The most important thing a parent can do is to validate their kid’s feelings. So instead of telling them they don’t have anything to be sad about, or that everything’s going well, you can just say, “I know you’re sad,” and “I know it’s hard.” It’s important to validate these feelings and follow up on what your kid needs, but don’t let them isolate themselves: You need to respect their space and privacy, but you can’t pretend like there’s not a problem by allowing them to isolate themselves in their room for days on end. If it’s persistent for a couple weeks, nothing seems to be helping and they stop doing the things that make them happy, then something’s up and it’s worth getting a professional opinion.

Sometimes parents aren’t clear on what’s clinical depression or what’s situational anxiety during a major life transition, and honestly, it’s always helpful to get a professional opinion from a doctor or social worker to see if they recommend further treatment or how to best help your child. I wouldn’t blindside your kid and drag them to a therapist right away, but getting help early on can really help your child instead of seeing therapy as a last resort. It’s better safe than sorry

If your kid says they want to talk to someone, don’t even hesitate, just take them. No matter what you think of it, just do it. Them wanting help from a doctor or therapist isn’t a reflection on your parenting. They may just need that space to share those feelings. Don’t make it a bad thing, just be supportive

Teen depression often looks like anger, especially in boys. Where girls may be a little more open with their feelings, boys are just as emotional and need just as much support, but unfortunately, it’s not as socially acceptable for boys to break down in tears, so their depression can look angrier.

If you think your kid needs some help, you can always go to the school social worker or guidance counselor and get a list of social workers in the area. Or you can always call your insurance company or your child’s pediatrician for a list of referrals. It’s important to know how you can get those resources if your child needs them.

Sarah Bhatnagar, poet: The problem is, we often forget to read the lines written all over people struggling with depression, the lines that clearly say, “Handle me with care.” Instead, throughout their struggle with depression, their ears grow accustomed to phrases like, “Chill,” “Everything will be alright,” “Don’t think too much” or “Leave it.” Sometimes these words, instead of healing, worsen things because they’re too easy to say. They sound more like reflex actions than someone actually listening.

Instead of saying these words, try to be their third and fourth ear. You want to get them to talk, because depressed people are like balloons — they keep feeding things inside them, and without letting them out, they burst. Give them a hug, tell them that you’re here, and that you will always be. They’ll push you away, but don’t go, because something inside them is begging you to stay.

We’re all like glasses
kept on a table,
They fall down on the ground,
And break,
Just like us,
We fall, and break,
The only difference is that
our fall has no ground,
Yet we break.