If your child is depressed, it is important to act now. Untreated depression causes tremendous suffering and can lead to serious medical and emotional problems, including suicide. Adolescents with untreated depression have difficulty learning and making and keeping friends. They are also more likely to abuse drugs and engage in self-injury. You must intervene now in order to help your teenager blossom into the wonderful person she was meant to be.
1. Educate yourself on depression in adolescents.
Learn the signs and symptoms of depression and know how to differentiate between normal sadness or “teen angst” and clinical depression. All teenagers are moody and irritable at times, and sadness is a natural and healthy response to a loss or disappointment. Depression is a serious but treatable mental illness which affects between 2-5% of adolescents at any point in time.
Depression involves a pervasively sad or irritable mood that lasts at least two weeks, but usually several months or more, and causes a noticeable change in functioning. Depressed adolescents also experience physiological symptoms such as changes in appetite and weight, lack of energy, insomnia or hypersomnia, and physical aches or pains. They tend to have poor self-esteem and irrationally negative thoughts, lose interest in activities and friends, isolate themselves, and feel guilty or worthless for no good reason. Many depressed teens feel hopeless and have recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.
2. Take your child to the pediatrician for a complete physical exam to rule out organic causes of depression.
In some cases, depression is the result of a general medical condition such as hypothyroidism or mononucleosis. Depression can also be a side effect of certain medications. Some teens may exhibit depression as a result of abusing alcohol, drugs, or prescription or over-the-counter medications. Finally, simple things like sleep deprivation, too much stress, and nutritional deficiencies can manifest as depression. It is important that your child receives a complete physical exam in order to rule out any of these potential causes.
3. Let go of guilt and blame.
Depression is no one’s fault. Your child did not choose it and you did not cause it. We know that depression is a heritable brain disorder which is often (though not always) triggered by stressful life events and brain changes during puberty. It is unhelpful, even counterproductive, to blame yourself or your child for her depression. While your child is depressed, her moods and behaviors are to some degree out of her control. She cannot “choose to be happy” or “snap out of it.”
4. Don’t be too quick to medicate.
Psychotropic medication has its place, and under certain circumstances, it may be a very helpful adjunct to psychological treatment for depression. Far too often, however, psychiatrists and other physicians use medication as the first line of defense against depression. This is especially dangerous for children and adolescents, whose brains are still developing and who are more likely to suffer from serious side effects.
In addition to the risk of side effects and the lack of evidence about the long-term effects of antidepressants on a developing brain, there are other dangers to using medicating as the first, or only, line of treatment.
First, there has been very little research on the effects of antidepressants in youth. Second, there is only one antidepressant medication (Prozac) which has been FDA-approved to treat depression in adolescents, but doctors regularly use other medications “off-label” to treat them. Third, psychotherapy is more effective than medication for most adolescents with mild-to-moderate depression. Fourth, a child who receives medication without psychotherapy will not learn the necessary skills or make the necessary life changes needed to sustain lasting improvement and prevent relapse. The effects of medication expire when the medication is stopped, whereas the effects of good psychotherapy are longer-lasting.
In order to protect your child from being prescribed unnecessary or harmful medication, I recommend first taking your child to a psychologist (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) rather than a psychiatrist (M.D.). Psychologists perform psychological assessments and conduct psychotherapy but do not prescribe medication. Most psychiatrists, on the other hand, prescribe medication to the vast majority of patients they see, while conducting little (if any) psychotherapy.
If it becomes evident later on that your child could benefit from medication as an adjunct to psychotherapy, you can always ask your child’s psychologist or pediatrician to refer you to a child psychiatrist with whom he/she has a working relationship.
All therapy is not created equal. Some psychological treatments have been shown to work, while others have not. Research supports the effectiveness of three different types of psychotherapy for depressed adolescents: individual cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), group CBT, and interpersonal psychotherapy for adolescents (IPT-A). All three of these treatments are relatively short-term, usually consisting of 12-16 weekly sessions over the course of 3-4 months.
CBT focuses on the relationships among thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. CBT directly targets the adolescent’s present symptoms, without much emphasis on the past. The CBT therapist helps the adolescent identify patterns of thinking and acting which are contributing to her depression and teaches her new ways of thinking and behaving that facilitate positive feelings. CBT be delivered individually, with your child meeting 1-on-1 with a therapist, or in a group consisting of one or two therapists and 6-12 other adolescents who are experiencing depression.
IPT-A focuses on the adolescent’s social functioning and her current relationships with important people in her life. Through IPT-A, the adolescent develops her social skills, learns more effective ways of communicating, identifies connections between certain relationship patterns and her depressive symptoms, and learns to cope effectively with life transitions.
Be conscientious and selective in your search for an appropriate therapist for your child. Try to find a psychologist who has experience in treating adolescent depression. Speak with the psychologist briefly over the phone before making an appointment. Ask her about her philosophy of treatment, and make sure she practices evidence-based treatment.
6. Insist upon being fully informed and actively involved in your child’s treatment.
There is quite a bit you can do to help your child recover from depression, so don’t let any professional tell you otherwise. Treatment works best when you are fully informed and actively involved. Your child will probably be meeting with the therapist individually during most sessions. However, you should be involved in the initial evaluation and treatment planning. You should expect the therapist to check in with you on a regular basis to provide updates on your child’s progress. The therapist should always return your calls in a timely fashion and should definitely tell you if your child is engaging in dangerous behavior.
At the start of treatment, have a frank conversation with the therapist about confidentiality and boundaries. You, the therapist, and your child should come to a clear agreement about what types of information will and will not be disclosed to you as the parent. It is important that your child forms a comfortable, trusting relationship with her therapist. It is even more important, however, that you are made aware of any harmful behaviors (e.g., drug or alcohol use, unprotected sex, eating disorders, cutting) and involved in the process of helping your child overcome these issues.
7. Be willing to consider antidepressant medication under certain circumstances.
Antidepressants are vastly over-prescribed. They should not typically be used as a first-line treatment and should not be prescribed unless the patient is also in psychotherapy. However, there are certain circumstances under which medication may be beneficial and even life-saving:
• If your child has been in evidence-based psychotherapy for two or three months but has not shown any improvement, consider adding an antidepressant to your child’s treatment plan as an adjunct to psychotherapy.
• Depression has a strong genetic component. If your child has a first-degree relative (mother, father, or sibling) who suffers from a mood disorder, this suggests that your child’s depression is likely to be genetic and biologically-based. In this situation, it is more likely that your child will benefit from antidepressants.
• Research has shown that severe depression responds best to a combination of psychotherapy and antidepressant medication. In contrast, mild- to moderate depression can typically be successfully treated with psychotherapy alone. Most cases of depression are mild or moderate, so check with your child’s psychologist to determine the severity of her illness. Adolescents with severe depression are often too ill to engage in psychotherapy without the added benefit of medication to normalize their brain chemistry.
• Your child’s medication should be prescribed and monitored by a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist, not by her pediatrician. While pediatricians are able to prescribe antidepressants, they do not have the expertise necessary to monitor your child’s progress and ensure that she is on the correct dose of the right medication.
• You and your child should meet with the psychiatrist for a thorough evaluation before any medication is prescribed. Be sure to ask the psychiatrist about any potential side effects or drug interactions of which you should be aware.
• Your child should be closely monitored by her psychiatrist while she is on the medication, especially during the first month and after a change in dosage. After that, the psychiatrist should follow up with your child at least monthly to monitor her progress and change her dosage if necessary.
8. Create a home environment conducive to overall physical health and mental wellbeing.
Basic self-care habits such as sleep, nutrition, exercise, and stress release are extremely important for someone suffering from depression. Teenagers are notorious for staying up late, eating lots of junk food, and guzzling soda at all hours of the day. While most teens can “get away with” these habits for a few years, teens recovering from depression cannot afford to take shortcuts with their health. Depressive symptoms can be caused or exacerbated by sleep deprivation, poor nutrition, inactivity, and chronic stress.
Prioritize health and well-being above all else. Establish regular bedtimes to ensure that your child gets a minimum of 8 hours of sleep every night. Many adolescents need 9-10 hours of sleep or even more in order to function optimally. Require your child to eat nutritious, balanced meals with the entire family. Supplement her diet with multivitamins and Omega-3 essential fatty acids, which have been shown to improve mood, memory, and general mental functioning. Encourage her to enjoy some physical activity every day. Minimize the stress and tension in your household. Help your child create a balance of study time, personal time, friend time, and family time.
9. Encourage healthy social relationships and fun activities.
Depression causes adolescents to withdraw from their friends and family and lose interest in activities they once enjoyed. Unfortunately, social isolation and inactivity only exacerbate depressive symptoms. Ensure that your child stays connected to the family by sharing meals with the family every day and involving her in a weekly family outing or game night. Encourage her to go out with her friends or invite them over to the house.
See to it that your child is involved in activities that create a sense of purpose, nurture her talents and burgeoning self-concept, and help her connect with other like-minded kids and adults. If your child is artistic, sign her up for art lessons or encourage her to audition for a play. If she is musical, encourage her to join the marching band or take dance classes. If she is athletic, encourage participation on a sports team. Many adolescents find a sense of meaning in volunteer work or involvement in religious activities.
Depressed adolescents often lose motivation and lack the interest and energy to initiate activities on their own. However, once they become involved and engaged in activities, they usually begin to feel a little bit better. Remind your child of this when she expressed reluctance to do something fun or social.
10. Provide your child with plenty of nurturing, comfort, and physical contact.
No parent wants their child to suffer. It will be very difficult to and heart-wrenching to watch your child struggle with depression. However, it is important that you remain calm, steady, compassionate, and optimistic.
Depressed adolescents often feel worthless and guilty for worrying their parents. Tell your child that you love her infinitely and unconditionally, regardless of whether she is happy or depressed. Ensure your child that she is not to blame for being depressed and that she has done nothing wrong. Let her know that you are concerned about her depression, that you are here to support her, and that you will take all the necessary steps to get her good treatment and help her recover.
Physical contact through affection, hugging, kissing can be very comforting to a distraught adolescent. If your child resists being touched, use a soothing voice and reassuring words to comfort her and let her know that you are always available for a hug whenever she needs one. Express empathy towards your child and be willing to listen to her thoughts and feelings. However, you must keep in mind that depressed adolescents may have many irrational thoughts and negative perceptions about themselves and others. For example, your child may be extremely self-critical, believe that no one likes her, tell you her life is a living hell, or fear that you are angry with her. You can gently explain to your child her depression is causing her to see things through a “negative filter” such that many of her perceptions are colored by the depression and are not necessarily accurate.
11. Be patient and realistic.
Recovery from depression takes time. Your child will not feel better right away, nor should you expect her to. It takes weeks for the effects of psychotherapy and medication to become evident. Your child may begin to feel hopeless and worry that she will be depressed forever. This hopelessness is a symptom of depression, rather than an accurate assessment of her situation. You must remain hopeful and optimistic regardless of your child’s attitude. Reassure your child that recovery takes time; that she will begin to feel better soon; that she must stick with treatment.
It is often helpful to lower your standards while your child is depressed. This is difficult for many parents to accept. However, it is important to recognize that depression is a very real and very disabling condition that will have a major impact on your child’s functioning, personality, and behavior. Depression in teens can manifest in a variety of ways. Some teens may suffer a decline in academic performance due to inability to concentrate. Many depressed teens will become quiet and withdrawn; others will become angry and volatile. Some depressed adolescents will act out, abuse drugs, cut themselves, or get into trouble at school. However your child’s depression manifests, be aware of one thing: your child will NOT seem like herself while she is depressed. Just be aware of this fact and accept it. This is not to say that you must tolerate blatant disrespect, delinquency, or dangerous behavior. Continue to maintain appropriate boundaries and limits to keep everyone safe. However, recognize that your child is suffering from a serious mental illness that impairs her ability to function. If her grades slip, or she doesn’t do her chores, or she mouths off to you more than usual, show compassion and empathy, and try to maintain perspective.
Some adolescents experience one episode of depression and that’s it. However, more than half of adolescents who experience major depression will go on to have more episodes in the future. This does not mean that treatment didn’t work, or that your child failed, or that you failed your child. This is simply the nature of major depressive disorder. The good news is that if your child has been successfully treated the first time, you know exactly what to do if she begins to develop symptoms again. With the knowledge, insight, skills, and professional contacts gained the first time around, relapse should be briefer and easier to manage.