It’s a common refrain from parents of teenagers. “Haley spends most of the evening in her room. She is always on Instagram and texting with friends.” This process of separating from parents is part of normal development as teens move toward independence during adolescence. Yet, when teenagers develop intense feelings of depression and anxiety, the tendency for parents is to rush in and take control. It is natural to feel alarmed when your previously well-adjusted child experiences a storm of emotions – worrying excessively about grades and friendships, acting sad and irritable, withdrawing from friends and family, and in the worst cases, having suicidal thoughts or behaviors.
Depression and anxiety are widespread during the adolescent years. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, depression affects between 5 and 10 percent of teenagers, and anxiety affects roughly 25 percent. These numbers are on the rise as adolescents face a growing number of stressors with respect to academics, family life, and peer relations.
In my private practice, I have talked with families about how parenting teenagers may feel like a high-wire act. It’s a delicate balance when teenagers are depressed and anxious because they are showing a need for support and, at the same time, pulling away from parents and internalizing their feelings. How can you respond in a way that honors your teen’s desire for independence, while opening a dialogue about her mental health?
First, it is important to connect with your teenager on a regular basis. Make small gestures to create a positive dynamic in your relationship, such as giving compliments and asking questions to show you’re interested in her life. Invite your teen to spend quality time with you doing an activity together, which creates a climate for openness and emotional expression. This could be as simple as going for a walk, cooking a meal together, or going out for lunch (just the two of you!) once a month.
Second, make an effort to genuinely understand your teenager’s thoughts and feelings. This involves the skills of active listening such as reflection (repeating back what you hear him say), validating (acknowledging that his position makes sense), and empathizing (putting yourself in his shoes). For example, active listening might sound like: “So, you’re saying that Eric turned away when you tried to talk with him at lunch. I can understand why that would be upsetting to you. How did it make you feel when that happened?”
Third, teach your teenager about the importance of perceptions. Thought distortions, such as catastrophic and all-or-nothing thinking, contribute to depression and anxiety. As you gently guide your teen to question her negative thoughts, it may change how she feels about her experiences. For example, she may realize that the D she got on an algebra quiz will not ruin her chance of getting into her top choice of college.
Fourth, resist the impulse to offer advice. Help your teenager to identify the circumstances that contribute to his feelings and consider some possible solutions. Convey that you have confidence in him to cope with any challenges he is facing. In general, offering your teen advice about what you think he should do when he has a conflict with his soccer coach is less effective than saying, “What are some ways you could handle it?”
Fifth, help your teenager combat depression and anxiety by making small changes in terms of self-care. This includes getting exercise and adequate sleep, engaging in activities that promote relaxation, and reducing extracurricular activities if necessary. Oftentimes, these small changes help your teen feel brighter and less stressed about her homework and other responsibilities.
Finally, it is essential to communicate the belief that change is possible. This belief, known as positive expectancy, is one of the most important aspects of healing and recovery. In essence, parents should teach teenagers that their brains are malleable and that this is not a permanent emotional state.
Just as a teenager experiences a range of emotions, parents of depressed and anxious teenagers may feel alone and helpless. Fortunately, with effective treatment, there is every reason to be hopeful that your children will navigate through these emotions. During the process of recovery, stay connected and available to your teenager while allowing her the space to find her own path.