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Tips for Helping Your Depressed Teenager

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In the midst of a busy workday, Sam received a call on his cell phone from his wife. "Travis slept through his alarm this morning. In fact, he won't even get out of bed. When I talk to him, he seems totally overwhelmed and almost hopeless. I knew he was having a hard time with some friends at school, but this is just not normal. What should I do?"

If you were Sam, how would you respond?

Many fathers of teenagers today find themselves dealing with issues like Sam confronts. Teenage depression is an issue which confronts many fathers. Is Travis just having a bad day? What has been happening in his life? How does he normally handle stress and is this out of the norm?

How Can You Tell if Your Teen is Depressed?

All teens experience some angst in their lives. It is almost hard wired in their brains and hearts. But depression is different. It is often almost debilitating in its impact on a teenager. Some of the symptoms of teenage depression include:

  • Sadness or hopelessness
  • Irritability, anger, or hostility
  • Tearfulness or frequent crying
  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of worthlessness and guilt
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Lack of enthusiasm and motivation
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

What Should You Do?

When you believe that your teenaged son or daughter may be in depression, you need to act. Teenage depression can move quickly from bad to worse. You want to make sure that your teen does not develop suicidal feelings; if they do, you need to respond immediately. If you believe that your child may be clinically depressed, you need to consider the following:

Talk About It. The first and most important thing to do is open the lines of communication. Share your specific concerns with your teen. Mention specific behaviors and times you noticed them rather than just being general. Express your desire for their happiness, and ask him or her to talk. Take an active listening approach--listen for feelings and then reflect them back. If you haven't been communicating regularly with your teen, it may take some time for them to open up to you. Take whatever time is needed. You might want to consider going on a walk or taking a drive as you chat, making the experience a little less intimidating for your teenager.

When you talk, make sure you let them know:

    You are not judging them. You know things can be hard for them, and what they are feeling is important. Even if their feelings seem irrational to you, recognize that they are real to your teen.
    You can offer support. If there are things your teen needs to get through this tough time, you will be there for them and can provide resources to help.
    You will not lecture. Your job as a father in this circumstance is to listen, not to rush in with answers and direction. Explore his or her feelings without being critical or offering advice that may or may not be welcome.

Set an Appointment with the Family Doctor. If you believe that your teen is depressed, he or she should be screened for clinical depression. Your family doctor is the best place to start. The family doctor is familiar and less threatening to you and your teen and can often have a conversation with your teen that you can't have. In addition, the doctor knows your child's history and will likely conduct a physical exam and some blood tests to make sure nothing else is happening physically.

See a Specialist. If the family doctor diagnoses your teen with depression, ask for a referral to a professional psychologist, psychiatrist or licensed clinical social worker for additional help. You and your teen will want to choose a professional who specializes in working with adolescents. Let your teenager be involved in choosing the specialist; not all professionals will connect with your teen.

Jointly Develop a Treatment Plan. You, your teen and the specialist should develop a treatment plan that will meet your and your teen's needs. The plan may involve therapy, counseling, medication and an exercise and diet regimen. As you visit with the specialist, make sure that you all understand what is expected.

Continue to Support Your Teen. Just because your teen is now in therapy and/or on medication does not mean your can check out as a father. You need to stay involved. Check in regularly with your teen and see how things are going. Encourage your teen to stay active physically and socially. You might even want to make time to share in that activity with them. A walk, run, bike ride or some hoops in the front driveway can be therapeutic for both of you. Be sure he or she is reminded to take any prescribed medication.

Dealing with teenage depression can be a physical and emotional drain for any father. But taking steps early to identify depression, working with medical professionals to develop a treatment approach, and consistently communicating and expressing love to your teen can make the process more productive for you and your teen and will help build his or her capacity to deal with life as it comes.

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