Six ideas for when your teen seems sad or depressed

Teens get down just like adults do.  They feel sad, miserable and depressed.  For some teens these times pass fairly quickly.  For others, they last a long time.   In either case, parents are crucial in helping sad teens cope.  Here are six ideas to consider.

1. Sympathise and don’t try to “talk them out of” being sad

It is hard to see teens feeling sad.  We feel upset to see them suffering.  And because they often act irritably when they are feeling sad, we get frustrated.  For both of these reasons, we often try to “jolly them out of feeling bad” or minimise their sadness.  We say things like “you'll be okay” or “don’t be upset”, “it's not that bad” or similar.  

Unfortunately while meant well, these kind of statements can make teens feel worse.  It can suggest to the teen that it's not okay that they are upset, which makes teens feel like no-one understands or cares.

Instead, we should be frequently saying things like, “I’m so sorry you are feeling so disappointed”, “I know you are feeling hopeless, and I’m sorry it feels sad right now”, “I don’t know exactly how to help you but I care a lot about you feeling so sad”.  And skip the “but….here’s the lesson” comments at the end.  At least for now.

2. Try to keep sad teens talking and being with others

When we feel sad, we have a strong instinct to withdraw from others.  We don’t want to talk, be around other people, share our thoughts nor to listen to others.  Unfortunately, being apart from people makes us feel worse in the long run. On the other hand, research is clear that when we are socially connected to people, depression is more likely to lift.  Sad teens need to be with and be communicating with friends, talking to adults they trust and spending time with family - not shut in their room constantly.  Because they often don’t feel like doing this, we need to encourage and facilitate this social activity.  This might mean helping them to organise outings with friends, quietly asking people to call them, facilitating actitivites with peers, engineering longer drives in the car to prompt conversation and so on.  This is tough, requires persistence and patience - but don't give up.  The longer a teen spends on their own, the more depressed they will get.

3. Try to keep sad teens fairly busy

When we feel sad, we also have a strong instinct to stop doing things, to become less active and sit around more.  Unfortunately, as is the case with withdrawing from friends, withdrawing from activity almost always makes people feel worse.  We must support teens to keep doing the things they used to care about, even if they don’t feel like doing it right now.  They must be doing something most of the time: going to school, playing sport, being physically active, socialising with friends, going to a part time job, reading, playing games, and so on.  Sometimes we need to break it down into manageable chunks (“I know you don’t feel like going to netball; let’s just go for the warm up and then decide if you want to play”). But however it happens, we need to minimise the time spent doing nothing and just thinking and feeling sad.

4. Invite THEM to do problem solving and planning 

It's very tempting to give sad teens advice and try to solve issues for them.  The problem is not just that we get it wrong, but also that we deny teens the learning and “depression-lifting” experience of making plans and problem solving themselves.  A better approach is to spend 80% of conversations about problems asking them questions rather than offering opinions.  It might be questions such as, “what would make this a little better?”, “what are your options do you think?”, “have you considered where to next?”, “do you have any ideas what might help you feel more positive?”, “how you cope with this”, “what might you say” and so on.  Invite the teen to put these ideas in writing, or to have a three point plan that they create.

You can also direct the teen to books, articles and people who can help them.  Look for articles on the net about sadness, difficult times in life or depression.  Email them a link to these resources.  Sometimes teens will be more open to ideas which come from other places other than parents.  For example, you send them to headspace.org.au or go to my e-book When Life Sucks For Teens: Strategies to Deal with 40 Teen Crappy Life Situations

5. Keep boundaries in place

Just because a teen is unhappy, does not mean allowing them to be rude, disrespectful or treat themselves or others badly.  It is important to keep roughly the same boundaries in place as you have always done (a little latitude in the short term is fine).  It is essential to be really compassionate in the way you enforce these boundaries, (“I’m sorry but if you say that to me again I’m going to have to leave the room”, “I know you are sad and so I feel for you, but I can’t let you speak to your brother like that.)

6. Get help from a professional if it continues or if you need support 

If you have any doubts at all as to whether your teen is unsafe, seek immediate help from a health professional such as your GP.  Even if safety does not appear to be an issue, never hesitate to get an extra opinion or advice from other parents, teachers, GPs, counsellors or a psychologist in how to care for a sad child/teen.   

If you would like information about our counselling service for parents and teens, click here on counselling.