First, congratulations, you are a perceptive parent and trying to find solutions to help your teenager be mentally healthier.
You ARE a good parent. You know how I know? You opened this blog, which means you are searching for answers because you care. Good parents do stuff like that.
Witnessing your child go through any heartache can feel helpless and to discover your child suffers from depression can add layers of fear.
I can’t imagine what my mom went through with me, I wouldn’t admit depression to her… I was embarrassed and felt shame. She tried to send me to a professional counselor but I’d clammed up in the dreary office, I didn’t want to talk to some adult, a stranger, I didn’t know. I had fears such as “Would she (the doctor) send me away to one of those crazy places?” I told my mom I never wanted to go back and she reluctantly agreed, respecting my wishes.
I lived in the shadows of depression since the age of thirteen into my adult life and it wasn’t until my mid twenties I knew something had to give. By then depression was talked about more – normal people, movie stars, writers, painters… suddenly the world opened doors to the mental disorder and it didn’t feel too shameful to go the doctor and be put on medicine.
Now, your teenager lives in a different world than I did (we did) with even more added stressors in a world of technology. The stress and pressure on teens today is ten times worse than what we had experienced.
Let’s go ahead and start with the biggest how and why question. “How does depression happen and why does my child have it?”
First, let me tell you this: As a parent myself and my own depression stemming from genetics, I’m terrified for my son (I never want him to go through what I did). That being said, not only do I understand from when I was a teenager myself but I do understand as a parent.
Now on to it….
Super simplified, depression happens when the brain isn’t producing the feel good chemicals it needs to properly function.
Of course, there are reasons why this happens, so, to add another super simple explanation, without getting into the in depth functions of neurotransmitters, serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins etc. etc. I have narrowed depression to five reasons I feel are most important: genetics, food, activity, sleep deprivation and chronic stress.
Genetics: Sometimes we are just born this way – but this doesn’t mean depression can’t be beat. Like it is said, genetics loads the gun but it’s your lifestyle that pulls the trigger.
Food: Has a huge impact on not only the body but the brain. What goes in the body does matter.
Activity: Physical activity hugely effects dopamine levels in the brain. Getting up and moving keeps the brain moving.
Sleep Deprivation: The body needs to rest and replenish for the brain to properly function.
Bad (Chronic) Stress: The amount of chronic stress disables neurotransmitters in the brain effecting serotonin levels.
Take a long look at these five things and see if you are able to apply any of them to your teens lifestyle.
Questions to Ask:
Is there someone in their lineage that suffers from mental illness? Do you suffer from depression?
Does your teen indulge in too much junk food? Are they getting the right vitamins and minerals needed for a healthy brain?
Is your teen glued to video games, iPad screens or TV? Are they getting at least thirty minutes or more daily activity?
Is your teen getting at least eight to nine hours of sleep a night? (Again, are they glued to TV, phones and iPad – can’t shut the brain off?) Are they going to bed at a decent time when they have to wake up for school the next day?
What kind of stress is your teen under at home, school, with friends, sports etc.? (and perhaps the hardest question to truthfully answer…) Are you part of the reason for your teen’s stress?
Answer the above questions honestly before continuing. Really think about the bad stress… there can be environmental factors (anything going on at home between parent (s), being bullied at school, a teacher etc.) social media bulling, an injury causing ongoing hospital, doctor visits and disrupting “normal life?” Carefully pay attention to red flags, teens are able to deceive to hide depression. This isn’t an ill intent but usually happens if they feel shame, fear or embarrassment.
In addition if there is trauma, that occurred in childhood, it could be resurrected at anytime in your teen’s current state of mind. Now that they are older, events could resurface that they had ignored or pushed down earlier in life. Your teen may feel they should be “over it” and not want to openly express the negative feelings and feel comfortable bringing “it up again.” Understand, they might not even know that the trauma is linked to the depression they are feeling now. (see PTSD)
Remember, the way your child is processing emotions is completely different from how adults process them. Still at this age, the logic of feelings and emotions are hard to work through due to the frontal lobe still not being fully developed.
1. First talk with your teen – communication is key
I know, I know…. talking to your teen can be really tricky. Shutting down is common. However trust me, where there is a healthy will there is a healthy way.
One of the first rules of talking with your teen (or any other aged child) is to be aware of your tone of voice and inflection. I can’t stress the important of this. Even at my son’s young age we have a “safe word” he can call if I tend to ramble, repeat the same point or become sarcastic when trying to relay an opinion. Keep this in mind and make yourself approachable.
When talking be flexible and allow your teen to have some control over the conversation. While communicating ask their opinion, give some options and let them know you are there to work alongside as a team. Don’t judge. Don’t react negatively, no matter what they tell you, or they will retreat and feel unsafe in confiding in the future. Calm, cool and collect are key. You can mentally process the weight of information and how to handle it when you are alone.
Keep in mind, your child is desperately trying to understand these feelings too – you both have the same ultimate goal – to beat the depression.
On a side note…. Don’t get frustrated if there aren’t immediate results. (Again, I can’t stress enough to keep in mind that your teen’s frontal lobe in the brain won’t fully develop until around the age of twenty-five. They are working off emotion – but you can help by working off rationalization.) You can read more on the teen brain with a good book called The Teenage Brain by: Frances E. Jensen, MD with Amy Ellis Nutt Read it yourself and let them know they can read it too and then leave it available for them to view at their own discretion. (Offer availability if they want to discuss the book IF it’s read)
Do continue to reassure them, “I am here and ready to listen when you’re ready to talk.”
Being available and letting them know you are available is a big deal.
2. Give your teen information and materials on depression = educate them AND you
Find books, there are some wonderful books geared just for teens, scientific information, and a list of iconic figures through our history that beat depression everyday and win. Also, offer a journal (I called mine a diary….) and reassure them that you will not read it, that it is a safe outlet for their feelings (stay true to your word unless there is a real threat and you can’t figure out another way to solve it). Trust is so important – and has to go both ways to work.
Beat the stigma of depression and reassure your teen their is nothing to feel embarrassed about. Millions of people suffer from depression and get help everyday (and they will too).
Don’t bombard your teen with materials and leave things open so your child can approach the information on their terms. Give them materials that might include their interest and likes. Intrigue them with help.
3. Educate you and your teenager on food and the brain
Look, at thirteen I was still a picky eater. As I became older I eventually made myself try and like the healthier foods – and this wasn’t easy. I gagged on avocados the first two times… (and this was in my thirties) But damnit I was going to eat those healthy Omega 3’s… (I LOVE avocado now).
Explain to your teen that their tastebuds are constantly changing. They might have tried a food last year and thought it gross but since their pallet is constantly growing sophisticated, as they are, this year they might like the taste of….tomatoes. (Favorite advice from my son’s pediatrician. I’m constantly able to remind him of this wisdom.)
Foods high in Omega 3’s are believed and depression fighting spices are proven to help inflammation in the brain, giving the brain nutrients it needs to build serotonin levels. The brain needs oxygen, too much caffeine can lessen the amount of oxygen to the brain. You can find more details about how food can effect the brain with some great resources.
Genius Foods by Mac Lugavere is a great book to start off with. (Grab your highlighter for chapter eight and then give it to your teen and let them know there is no pressure but you believe it is a helpful option). Max Lugavere also has a great podcast about food and the way it effects the brain – doesn’t hurt to listen while driving, lots of great information from a young, cool guy (or what your teen might refer to as ‘wigged’).
Another wonderful guide with a mega amount of resources is Food Babe. Vani Hari, the Food Babe, gives you all the information you need to know about food on a silver platter. There is loads of information on what should and shouldn’t go into your child’s body (and yours) explaining the why(s), meal prep guides, recipes and more to eating healthier. Wait until you find out why she started her website…
4. Talk to your teen about sleep and the effects it has on the brain, not just the body.
According to UCLA health.org the teen needs about nine hours of sleep each night. So, when your teen sleeps in on the weekends don’t fuss because their busy brain is probably trying to catch up from the week.
Think of all the things in your teens life causing lack of sleep… homework? A job? Sports? Tv?
Try really hard and think back to when you were a teen and what kind of sleep you had. I’m sure you recall sleeping late on weekends but did you have a hard time winding down at the end of a day? Were you in a lot of after school activities that caused you late nights with homework? Try to apply your teen life in understanding your child. You are not identical but branches from the same tree and that can help you relate.
Here is what lack of sleep does: leaves the brain exhausted, causes irritability and emotional outburst, worsen depression systems (it is sometimes unknown if depression came first or lack of sleep), create anxiety, stress, weaken immune system, increase risk for chronic illness… you get the idea.
Work with your teen for an agreeable sleep regiment and schedule to assure they are receiving proper rest. Consult your pediatrician if you think melatonin might be needed or 5-HTP to regulate their sleep cycle. You can encourage sleep machines/relaxation and apps that will track sleep. If your teen snores or grinds their teeth on a regular basis this can be do to sleep apnea or stress. It would be wise to seek a pediatrician’s advice on this topic as well. (If grinding teeth, they will need a guard).
5. Explain bad stress and the effects it has on the brain
We all go through stressful situations. There is a bad stress and there is good stress… does your teenager know the difference? Do you?
It’s essential that your teen is able to figure out their bad stress triggers and how to deal with negativity in a positive way. It’s impossible for your teen to do this if they don’t understand what it is and why it happens.
I wrote a blog on bad stress (chronic stress) and ways to fight it. Some of these ideas might be able to be applied to your teen with a spin on the ideas from their parent (that’s you).
Try offering some of these questions for your child to ponder:
What is the key stressor? Is it someone at school? Is it an injury or health issue? Is it a romantic relationship? Is it loss of a love one? Is it a parent? A friend?
You get the idea…
Help them understand it’s important to talk about these stresses. Gently encourage a professional counselor, reminding your teen there are counselors at school. (Ask them if they know how to schedule an appointment. If they don’t take initiative, find out and then explain the protocol to your teen. Don’t push but guide them to further information.) If your teen isn’t comfortable meeting with a school counselor, hire an outside professional that specializes with teens. Let them know their counselor is a safe place to talk about family, friends, college etc. Subtly, remind your teen that what they say during these sessions will remain privy. All information disclosed to the therapist is about keeping a healthy mind.
Do you remember your teenage self? It’s not easy being a teen, though we associate a lot of good “in those days…” there were a lot of challenges too. Remember this as you try to help your teenager navigate through depression.
If your teen resist what you have to offer, don’t give up. Again, remember to continue reaffirming “I’m always here to listen when you’re ready to talk.”
Lastly, be aware of the trouble your teen can face if they follow a dark path for quick dopamine fixes; Because depression happens when happy chemicals are out of balance quick fixes of dopamine can give an immediate happy feeling. If your teen stays off balance and relies on these quick fixes it can lead to (from teen to adulthood): alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders, excessive spending, gambling, sex addiction, etc. To avoid this, now and the future, help them understand how the brain works. There are positive, healthy choices for dopamine release. For example: exercise, bubble bath, doing something kind, cuddling with their dog or cat, etc.
The more your child understands now, when negative fixes arrive in their life (dangled) they will feel empowered to walk away.
Below I’ve added some helpful links to continue your research if you’d like.
You are doing great at being a parent. Stay positive and keep looking for ways to help your child. Remember, it takes a village and the more adults in your teen’s life on the same page, the better.
You’ve got this!
Understanding the teen brain/Stanford Children’s
Why Teens Have More Anxiety: Amen Clinics
The Adolescent Brain by: Dr. Dan Siegel (YouTube)
The Teenage Brain/How to Train Teens in Building the Right Boundaries (podcast)
Is it just a phase? Or something more? Understanding depression in teens
Depression in Teens/Mental Health America
Teens and Depression: Diagnosis/Treatment/Risks by PsyCom
Depression Workbook for teen/book
It’s the Depression for me (Three ways to make being a teenager suck less)/book
Anxiety Relief For Teens (how to overcome anxiety and stress)/book
Depression: A teens guide to thrive and survive/book
In Addition: please be advised you should always check with a doctor before making any health changes. I am not a doctor and am only sharing my experiences and personal research I’ve done.