Six Tips for Communicating With a Depressed Teen

Date Posted

April 30, 2024


Lindsay Schwartz

Tips Depressed Teen Mom and Daughter Talking Outside

Parenting is difficult at any stage, but the teen years offer unique challenges. When depression is involved, it can seem like the child you once knew is behind an impenetrable wall. While there is no one right approach to talking with your depressed teen, there are strategies to help keep the lines of communication open. For example, adolescent therapist Rebekah Gibbons advises caregivers to “listen to listen, not to respond.” This is harder than it sounds! 

In an effort to formulate the perfect reply, we sometimes miss what was said. Active listening (download) allows you to hear what your teen has to say and also attune to nonverbal communication like tone of voice and body language. Here are 6 tips for talking with your depressed teen.

1) Validate what your depressed teen is going through

Think back to your own adolescence. Chances are you can remember at least one situation that felt life-altering at the time, but now, through the lens of adulthood, it seems relatively minor. This perspective can only be gained with life experience. Telling your teen, “It will get better” or “This is really not a big deal,” is unproductive and likely to leave them feeling misunderstood. 

Validation, on the other hand, acknowledges what your teen is going through without judgment or attempts to make them feel better. For example, you could say, “It sounds like you are really struggling to find the energy to socialize right now, and so are feeling disconnected from your friends.” Validating how your teen feels will let them know they aren’t alone and that their feelings are completely normal and valid. It creates a safe space for them to express their emotions and concerns, helping to build trust and open communication.

2) Keep an open mind

Parents and adult caregivers are authorities on many things. But your teen is the authority on their own experience. Try to resist jumping to conclusions, making assumptions, or drawing parallels to your own adolescence. Instead, ask clarifying questions. 

For example, instead of asking, “Why are you feeling this way?” which can come across as accusatory, ask, “Can you tell me more about how you’ve been feeling?” Other examples of clarifying questions include, “Can you give me an example?” and “What do you think about that?” 

3) Resist the urge to “fix” the problem for your depressed teen

Depressed Teen Father Mother Daugther Upset On CouchFew things are more excruciating than watching your child suffer while sitting in your own helplessness. Perhaps that’s why it’s so tempting to rush in with unsolicited advice or solutions! While these attempts at guidance may come from a good place, they can make your teen feel dismissed or like their problems are being minimized. 

Remember, the end goal is for your child to be able to handle life’s challenges on their own. That empowerment starts in adolescence. Ask your teen, “What do you think is the best way to handle this situation?” or “What are some things that you have tried?”

4) Don’t take it personally

Adolescence is a time of growth and change, as teens gradually develop their independence from the adults in their lives. This means occasionally pushing back against authority figures like parents, teachers, and other caregivers. While this can feel like a personal attack, it’s part of their normal development. 

Pay attention to the emotions in yourself that your depressed teen’s behavior elicits. Don’t be afraid to take a moment to collect your thoughts before responding. It’s okay to communicate your feelings to your teen, but make sure you do it in a calm, respectful way. Remember, your child is looking to you to model effective emotion regulation and communication skills! 

5) Be direct

The adolescent years are often characterized by “hot-button” issues like sex, substance use, self-harm, and suicide. These topics are uncomfortable for teens and caregivers alike. Although you may be tempted to avoid talking directly about these issues, euphemisms or “beating around the bush” can confuse and frustrate your teen. Instead, use clear language and provide accurate, vetted information. 

Don’t believe the misconception that talking about these subjects will make your teen more likely to engage in risky behaviors. On the contrary, it will signal to them you are a safe and trustworthy source of information and support.

6. Respect boundaries

Adolescents use boundaries to assert their independence as part of normal development. These can be physical, as in eschewing physical affection, or emotional boundaries around what your teen is and is not willing to share. While these boundaries may differ from yours, it is important that you respect your teen’s wishes. 

If your depressed teen doesn’t want to talk, don’t force the issue. If they need space, give it to them without judgment or guilt-tripping. At the same time, let your child know that you will be there for them when they’re ready. When they indicate a willingness to talk, put down whatever you are doing so that you can give them your undivided attention. When it comes to communicating with your depressed teen, you’re not going to get it right all the time. That’s okay! Each misstep is an opportunity to take responsibility for your mistakes, ask for forgiveness, and show your teen that even adults are works in progress. 

Looking for more teen communication tips? Tune into our webinar, “Unlocking Healthy Conversations: Strategies for Talking with Teens About Mental Health” on May 22!

Lindsay Schwartz HeadshotLindsay Schwartz is a psychotherapist in private practice in Acton, MA, where she specializes in the treatment of depressive and anxiety disorders. She has a background in school counseling and a special interest in mindfulness-based treatments.  Lindsay earned her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and English from Williams College, and her Master’s degree in Social Work from Simmons College. In her free time, Lindsay enjoys writing, reading, running, and spending time with her husband and 2 children.