Help a Teen

I’m worried about a teen in my life.

Understand more about what they are going through.

One out of every five teenagers struggles with depression.

Depression can interfere with everyday life for teens and can lead to academic failure, substance abuse, bullying or being bullied, eating disorders, and suicide.

Teen depression is often mistaken for normal teen angst.

Many of the behaviors associated with adolescence — moodiness, anger, social withdrawal — may actually be signs of depression.

Worried about a teen? Caring adults must know what to look for and how to intervene.

The teen may not reach out for help themselves, so if you are worried about a teen in your life, it is important to know how to approach them or their parents.

What your teen may be experiencing

  • Depressed, irritable, sad, or empty mood for at least two weeks
  • Decreased interest or enjoyment in once-favorite activities and people
  • Changes in appetite, eating too much or too little, significant weight gain or loss
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Physical agitation
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Feelings of guilt or not being "good enough"
  • Decreased ability to concentrate, indecisive
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Recurrent suicidal thoughts or behavior (Seek immediate medical help if your teen expresses this.)

What adults may notice in their teen

  • Irritable or cranky mood, preoccupation with song lyrics that suggest life is meaningless
  • Loss of interest in sports or other activities, withdrawal from friends and family, relationship problems
  • Failure to gain weight as normally expected
  • Excessive late-night TV, having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, having trouble getting up in the morning
  • Inability to sit still, taking a long time to complete normal tasks, pacing back and forth, and/or excessive repetition of behaviors
  • Social withdrawal, napping, withdrawal from usual activities, boredom
  • Making critical comments about themselves, having behavior problems at home or school, being overly sensitive to rejection
  • Poor performance at school, drop in grades, frequent absences
  • Frequent complaints of physical pain (headache, stomachache)
  • Writing about death, giving away favorite belongings, making statements like, “You’d be better off without me.”

If you are the parent

Find a time to talk to your child with as few distractions as possible. Start by telling them you care about how they are feeling. Then, you can try some of these techniques:

Describe why you are concerned

  • “I’m worried because I’ve noticed you’ve been crying a lot lately.”
  • “I’m concerned because it seems that you are feeling angry and unhappy these days.”
  • “I’m sad because you don’t have much energy to do the things you used to enjoy doing, like hanging out with your friends.”
  • “I worry about your safety when you . . ."

"My first thought was, 'What did I do wrong? What did I do or not do as a parent when she was a baby or when she got older?' Depression is an illness – it’s not due to any particular thing that you did."

- David, parent of a teen with depression

How to help your teen once they are diagnosed

Honor your child’s feelings. It is difficult to see your child sad and in pain. Your first response might be to try to cheer him or her up. Don’t. Trying to make depressed children and teens happy makes them feel like the depression can be willed away. It is more helpful to listen. Acknowledge their feelings and take them seriously.

"We have open conversations with our kids. We try to hit on the fact that depression is genetic – it’s not your fault. If you needed glasses or if you had diabetes, we’d be doing something. We’ve had a lot of love, a lot of conversations, and a lot of patience with challenges we never thought we’d have."

- Sheila, parent of four teenagers

Use encouraging statements rather than punishment.

Instead of yelling, “Turn that television off! You haven’t done your homework yet!” say “When you finish your homework, you can watch television.”

If you are not the parent

You may be worried about a teen in your life that is your student, a member of your after-school program, or a relative. Although you aren’t the parent, you can still play an important role in getting them help. Here are some things you can do:

  • Approach the teen’s parents and describe what you’ve observed in a thoughtful way. This may be difficult for the parent(s) to hear, but be honest and express your concern.
  • If, for some reason, you need to talk to the teen first, follow the same approach. Tell them what you’ve observed and offer to talk to the principal, program leader, or parents with the teen.

What NOT to do

Dont ask why he or she feels depressed. Children and teens who are depressed can’t answer questions like, “Why are you crying all the time?” or “What do you have to be sad about?” Asking them only makes them feel worse, like they are supposed to control their depressed feelings when they can’t.

Dont tell your child to change how he or she feels. Depressed children and teens cannot just “snap out of it.” They can’t help how they feel and they can’t make it go away by willpower.

Dont compare your past feelings to your childs depression. It’s not helpful to say, “Well, when I feel badly, I just pull myself up by my bootstraps,” or “When my childhood dog died, I just had to get over it’.”

iStock 1065892466

There are a number of things you can do.

Jessie and Steve

Jessie overcame depression and self-injury. Dad Steve shares his advice.

Emily and Lisa

Lisa made tough decisions when trying to help her daughter Emily.

Order Custom Teen Depression Resource Cards for Your School or Community

section3 dingbat2

These folded cards, sized to fit in wallets and on the back of phones, describe depression symptoms, how to get help, and how to practice self-care—all in language that is accessible to teens.