How Do You Help A Depressed Teenager?

Yesterday I promised to come back and talk about helping teenagers cope with depression. Here I go.

At one point in my training, I spent an entire year working on a child and adolescent inpatient psychiatric unit. It’s not real easy to get institutionalized these days. I say this to point out that in order to end up hospitalized on an inpatient unit things have to be pretty bad. The teenagers who reach this level of severity usually arrive there for suicide attempts. I didn’t keep official statistics because I saw so many kids while I was there, but I would guess that at least 70% of the teenagers I saw had tried to commit suicide at least once. Some of them had multiple attempts.

Here’s the biggest mistake that parents and others working with teenagers who are severely depressed make: Trying to convince them that their feelings are temporary and that things will get better.

What? Did I just really say that? Yep. I did.

Most of you are probably wondering how I ever got a degree. You’re asking, “Shouldn’t we be trying to show them that their feelings won’t last and that high school is not the real world?”

I would say no. You really shouldn’t. Approaching their feelings in this way only leads to them feeling more alienated from you and reinforces their belief that you don’t understand them or know what they are going through. The first thing almost everyone says to a teenager who is really struggling is “You’re going to get through this. It’s going to be okay. I promise. You won’t always feel this way.”

This is intuitive for us and it comes from a great helping place. Not to mention that it’s true! We know they will get through it and that they won’t always feel the way they do. However, they don’t know that. And because of where they are in their brain development, they actually don’t have the cognitive abilities developed yet to be able to think this abstractly.

For example, toddlers’ brains are very similar to teenagers’ brains. Imagine if your three year old child was really upset and crying. And you told them, “It’s okay. You won’t feel like this when you’re six.” They would look at you completely baffled. They would have absolutely no idea or comprehension of what you were talking about. It’s the same principle with teens.

When it comes to teens, the current status of their life is the only life they can see and the future doesn’t even exist. Ultimately, they just want you to hear them. They just want to be understood.

I can’t tell you the number of times I watched teenagers shrink away from their parents well intentioned promises of better days and alternately, the relief that came when their parents finally got it. When they started meeting them exactly where they were. Just how do you do that?

Start by saying, “I understand this must be really hard for you…” And stop there. Don’t say the next part. Stay in the current day with them because this is the only day they see.

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