Talking to teens about depression can be very difficult for parents. You may have concerns but knowing the best way to address them can be tricky. It is confusing at times for some parents to know where the line is between normal changes in behaviour that happen during adolescence and what is concerning.
What is normal?
Identifying normal behavior can be tricky in the best of conditions. Though there are generally more similarities than differences among us. However, some of the differences in personality, preferences, interests, activity levels, social engagement… can leave parents scratching their head. They may be thinking “I wasn’t like that at their age.” “I certainly wouldn’t make that choice.”
The thing to remember with teens is that they are at a phase of development where they are supposed to be exploring, trying new things, and fumbling around to figure out where their comfort zone is on various things. That could be interest in careers, relationships, or how to manage money. The list goes on. There needs to be a certain amount of trial and error to learn for themselves what sits well with them.
So, if your son or daughter is less interested in socializing than you are that is not necessarily a red flag. They may be a bit more on the introverted end of the scale than extroverted. There is nothing wrong with this. They may be content with only having 1-2 friends where you may have a large circle of friends you speak with often. These are personality differences and preferences not cause for concern since it isn’t social isolation. Their baseline level that they need to feel content may be lower than yours.
What should I watch for?
One of the key things to pay attention to is changes in behavior. Yes, this is an everyday thing with the flood of hormones they are experiencing. However, it is wise to trust your gut. It can be a powerful tool to diagnosis if something “Just Ain’t Right” (Not a real diagnosis but a label that I saw used often when living in the south in the USA. It has stuck with me. You will know it when you see it.) Some of the things to watch for include changes in sleep patterns, extra irritability / anger (particularly in boys), loss of interest in activities they had liked. Some of these may have normal fluctuations for all of us. You will want to take note of a sudden or extreme shift.
Again, with socializing it is a time for them to explore. They may have some failed attempts at dating or dramatic clashes happen in their friend group. Some of this is normal. It is a matter of degree, frequency and intensity that should cause alarm.
You may also watch for signs that they are drinking, smoking, taking drugs also. This could be experimentation but it may also be their attempts to self-medicate their own sadness without asking for help.
If they have low self-esteem they may need assistance to change this view of themselves. Again, this is degrees. We may all doubt ourselves at times or feel particularly bad about a choice we made in the past etc. However, there is a point where it shifts from feeling bad about an action or situation to feeling they are bad as a person. That is a sign they have turned on themselves and may be feeling hopeless, helpless, worthless… That mindset will require external intervention to adjust.
What can I do?
One of the best things you can do is be proactive.
It will help both of you navigate this phase if you have invested the time in developing a close relationship where you can talk openly. This will make it easier for them to approach you if they are not feeling well emotionally. It will also make it seem more natural for you to approach them and start a conversation if you notice they haven’t been themselves lately.
Having an honest discussion about your concerns is a good place to start.
Give some thought to this so that you are approaching them with neutral observations, and maybe share some examples of why you are concerned. Once you have shared your concerns make sure to sit back and truly listen. having your kid sharing why they acted in this way or changed could be a significant opportunity for you to connect with them.
NOTE: This discussion shouldn’t be in the heat of the moment or connected to an argument etc.
If you feel the situation may require professional help don’t hesitate to pull in someone who is familiar with helping adolescents. This should be your first step if you suspect they are considering self-harm or suicide.
Parents may be surprised to know that teens may be receptive to speaking to a counsellor or psychologist. For some they readily accept the opportunity to speak to a grown up outside their family who is neutral. Often, they find it refreshing to be able to talk about their worries, get suggestions on ways to cope or different ways to see things. This may be the case even if they aren’t comfortable speaking to a parent about their situation.
For some there may be an initial resistance. This may simply be because it is their first time doing something new. If this is the case a gentle nudge by parents to get things started can be very helpful.
That reassurance that it isn’t scary can be all it takes. If you think about it, one of the worst things for some teens is to be tabled or feel different and/or strange. So, the idea that they are behaving strange despite their best efforts to control it may be humbling. They may also be worried about how others may perceive them if they see a counsellor. These concerns often evaporate once they connect well with the counsellor. Then they will appreciate the opportunity to air some of their insecurities, worries and general questions and feelings in a safe place.