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Depressed And Anxious Teens: Experts Give Practical Advice On How To Help (Including Checklists)

Depressed Anxious Teens Practical Advice

Teens are increasingly feeling more anxious and depressed now than a few years back, and unless this is taken care of at the right time and in the right way, it will only get worse.

Helping Teens Fight Back Against Anxiety And Depression

“Cliff was born angry,” the mom said to me with a laugh. We were sitting in my office, the morning sun streaming through the windows. The intake interview had just started. Her 13-year-old son, Cliff, sat next to her and added “That’s probably true, but then again who wouldn’t be angry when you just got swatted on the butt by some doctor?” Funny kid, I thought to myself. He has a quick wit.

As the conversation continued the mother described how Cliff had become increasingly irritable, short tempered and withdrawn over the past few months.

About twenty minutes into the hour I asked to speak with Cliff alone. Teens will often open up once parents leave the room, and with a little encouragement that happened with Cliff as well.

I asked about his first year of high school, what he liked best, and how he had dealt with some of the common challenges. The year had started out well. Cliff made several new friends, did well academically, and enjoyed feeling more ‘grown up.’

When the conversation turned to how things changed with COVID19, however, he became more animated. Changing to online learning was a major shift. “At first I thought cool, this is rad, no classes just sleeping in and playing video games all day” he exclaimed. “I was thinking dude, I could do this for years!”

As it turned out, he quickly realized there were many unexpected downsides to this ‘new normal’ of schooling. Cliff missed the structure that being in class had provided. He began to feel isolated from friends, and was very disappointed that the high school soccer season had been cancelled.

Now that the shelter in place orders had extended into the summer, Cliff began to think that his life might never be normal again. This was light years away from the freshman year experience he had imagined.

Added to these stressors came another and more devastating blow: his father was laid off from work. Financial tensions quickly swept through the family, and heated arguments between the parents became a daily occurrence. Cliff would often fall asleep to the sound of his mother and father exchanging angry accusations.

Like an airliner that suddenly changes course, Cliff’s mental state shifted and began a steady downward glide path into a state of anxiety and depression.

His mother had brought him to therapy for his anger, but there was a lot more going on than just being an irritable adolescent. His profound disappointments, and his fears about the future, had planted the seeds of chronic distress.

Cliff was both depressed and anxious.

These two problems frequently arise in tandem. When they do, it is anxiety that makes its appearance first. If the person is unsuccessful in dealing with his or her fears, a sense of helplessness may take root. This, in turn, becomes fertile ground for depression, which then grows stronger over time.

These same processes had taken place in Cliff. The COVID shutdown and all that entailed had eventually given rise to anxiety. When his efforts to deal with these fears persistently failed to bring relief, frustration, anger and depression entered the picture. The energetic, optimistic, and somewhat goofy adolescent his parents had known could no longer be found.

Many Teens Struggle With Depression And Anxiety

An alarming number of teens struggle with anxiety and depression, and over the past 15 years, the problem has worsened. A Pew research paper reported that in 2007 8% of teens had one major depressive episode in the past year. Ten years later the number had increased to 13 percent (an increase of 2 million teenagers)

Another study by the Pew Research group in 2018 showed that the majority of teens view both anxiety and depression as a major issue among their peers

In May of 2020 a Harris Poll contacted 1,500 teens: 7 of every 10 teenagers reported struggling with mental health in some fashion.  

Over half of those in the sample confided that they had struggled with anxiety, 43% said they had been depressed, and 45% noted that they had experienced severe stress. 

Depressed And Anxious Teens
Depressed And Anxious Teens

More alarming, however, is a study that came out in April of 2020 by Professor Jean Twenge showing that between 2011 and 2019 the number of teen girls with depression had doubled. The number of depressed teenage boys had increased by nearly 75%.

Depressed And Anxious Teens
Depressed And Anxious Teens

Self-harm and suicide rates had also increased (as would be expected with increases in depression). Dr. Twenge found that heavy technology use and diminished face-to-face interaction were highly correlated with these trends.

From the time the COVID lockdowns began, with the subsequent shuttering of schools, teens have had less face-to-face interaction with peers and very likely (given how much they are now home) more time on social media.

Before moving on, it would be good for us to look at the impact of COVID shutdowns on teens a little more closely.

Related: Why Are Millennials So Anxious And Unhappy?

Impact Of COVID On Teen Depression And Anxiety

This situation has worsened due to COVID-19 restrictions. Government shutdowns of schools, and a shift to online learning and other ‘shelter in place’ restrictions, have put even more stress on adolescents. Some of the most common stressors include:

1. Reduced peer interaction.

For most teens, peer interaction is one of the most important ways they maintain emotional stability. Peers provide a sense of belonging and support that is crucial during this time when youngsters are forming greater independence.

As teens pull away from parents in preparation for making their own decisions and setting a life course, they desperately need peers to whom they can turn. For many teens, social distancing mandates have made this extremely difficult to achieve.

2. Perceived lack of progress in their march toward adulthood.

When removed from the daily rhythms of the school year, many adolescents fail to see the benchmarks of progress that provide the signposts signifying that they are closing in on adulthood.

The absence of the first football game of the year, homecoming, Thanksgiving break, etc. leaves a void that can lead to a sense of listlessness. Somewhat like driving across a desert in the middle of the night.

3. Missing the “Epic” moments of life.

Teens tend to dramatize, and the variety of experiences that are missed due to social distancing leads some teens to conclude that they have missed out on treasured moments that they will forever mourn.

While it is true that some of these missed events would have been memorable, none of them need to change the course of life. Nevertheless, with a tendency toward drama, many teens find these losses very painful.

4. Close quarters with family over extended periods of time can also lead a teen (and parents) to feel overwhelmed.

Shelter in place causes many teens to become irritable, short-tempered, oppositional. As tensions rise within the home teens feels trapped, misunderstood, and angry. If parents cannot find constructive solutions to defuse these pressures, anxiety, and depression may develop.

What Are Common Signs Of Teen Depression And Anxiety?

Teens are well known for having moods that quickly swing from one extreme to another. This makes many parents feel confused when attempting to answer the question “Is my teen anxious?” or “Is my child depressed?” They think “Who knows? She seemed happy this morning, anxious this afternoon, and sad this evening.”

This state of uncertainty just adds to a parent’s concern and confusion. Let’s erase the uncertainty by looking at the major symptoms for anxiety and the primary symptoms of depression.

Keep in mind that the following list of symptoms is not exhaustive. We are not looking to develop a formal diagnosis in the same way I do when a client comes to see me in the office.

Depressed And Anxious Teens
Depressed And Anxious Teens

What’s more, there are different types of anxiety and depressive disorders. It would not be helpful to go over each one in this article. The lists we will look at the cover the main symptoms of depression and anxiety. We are looking at common signs of these disorders but not trying to pinpoint the specific type of anxiety or depression.

With that in mind, some general guidelines follow. If your teen has at least one symptom from the ‘Feeling’ category and meets six or more criteria from the other items on the depression list, consult with your pediatrician.   

If your teen has at least one symptom from the ‘Feeling’ category of anxiety and meets five or more criteria from the anxiety list, it also would be a good idea to consult with your pediatrician.   

Your doctor will be able to help you decide whether to seek out a counselor. (This is a general guideline only. It may be with some teens that less than seven items would be the threshold for seeking professional advice. Parents must use their own judgment).

If you have an older teen (17 to 19 years) it can be helpful to use free online depression and anxiety screening tools.

Depression

Feelings

  • Feeling hopeless or empty, pervasive sense of guilt/worthlessness.
  • Feelings of sadness, which can include crying spells for no apparent reason.
  • Loss of pleasure (or interest) in activities, family, and friends that had previously been sources of happiness.
  • Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure, and the need for excessive reassurance.

Behavior

  • Social isolation (especially important when the teen had been very social in the past).
  • Use of alcohol or drugs.
  • Angry outbursts, disruptive or risky behavior, or other acting-out behaviors.
  • Frequent complaints of unexplained body aches and headaches, which may include frequent visits to the school nurse.
  • Agitation or restlessness — for example, pacing, hand-wringing, or an inability to sit still.
  • Poor school performance or frequent absences from school in a youngster who previously did well academically and attended school regularly.
  • Less attention to personal hygiene or appearance.
  • Self-harm — for example, cutting, burning, or excessive piercing or tattooing (if this is happening then you need not consider how many other symptoms are checked: consult with your pediatrician, or a counselor, as soon as possible).

Thoughts

  • Fixation on past failures or exaggerated self-blame or self-criticism.
  • Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions, and remembering things.
  • An ongoing belief that life and the future are grim and bleak.
  • Frequent thoughts of death, dying, or suicide.
  • Making a suicide plan or a suicide attempt (obviously, if this is the case contact your pediatrician or a counselor right away).

Health

  • Tiredness and loss of energy.
  • Insomnia or sleeping too much.
  • Changes in appetite — decreased appetite and weight loss, or increased cravings for food and weight gain.

Related: 4 Common Symptoms Of Depression In Children

Depressed And Anxious Teens: Experts Give Practical Advice On How To Help (Including Checklists)

Anxiety Symptoms

Feelings

  • Feeling fearful or full of dread throughout much of the day for most days of the week (extending over several months).
  • A chronic sense of uneasiness/tension or clear-cut fear associated with situations, people, or things that objectively are not threatening (or do not warrant the degree of fear seen in the youngster).

Behavior

  • Appears frequently restless or agitated.
  • Refusal to try new experiences or meet new people.
  • Pacing, twisting hands together, unable to sit still.
  • Obsessive checking that doors are locked, opening and closing doors for no reason, insisting that a desk, room, or other areas of the house needs to be perfectly arranged in a very specific manner.

Thoughts

  • Turns small worries into large concerns.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Becomes fixated on a worrisome thought.

Health

  • Experiences aches and pains (when this had not previously been the case).
  • Has difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Racing heart (sometimes heart palpitations).
  • Dizziness, shaking, and wooziness.
  • Sweating in absence of exercise or heat.
  • Frequent unexplained nausea.
  • Chills/Fatigue.
Depressed And Anxious Teens
Depressed And Anxious Teens

The information provided above will be more than enough for most parents to feel confident in determining whether their adolescent son or daughter is anxious or depressed. But for those that would like to quickly take an even closer look at the issue, I’ve linked to additional resources that can be found on depression and anxiety

How Parents Can Help Their Depressed Or Anxious Teen

Now let’s look at how you, as a parent, can help your teen fight back against depression and anxiety.

The recommendations that follow are straight forward. They were specifically chosen so any parent can quickly understand how to apply them with their teen.

But this doesn’t mean things will be easy. Just as running a marathon is simple, the work required to cross the finish line requires a great deal of persistence and hard work.

So be prepared. If your teen struggles with depression or anxiety there is going to be a lot of hard work ahead.

How Quickly Will My Child Respond?

Most often change is a gradual process. Youngsters who are severely anxious/depressed usually take months to get back to their old selves. Mildly depressed/anxious teens may show great progress in just two or three weeks.

As a general rule, the longer a teen has been anxious or depressed the longer it takes to change.  

Also, the more severely depressed, or anxious, a teen has been the longer it takes to change.

Bottom line: Don’t expect to see your teen make huge changes overnight. That’s rare. But you should see some improvement.

What’s more, most teens are able to pull through. Most teens do not remain deeply depressed and anxious for years. If the solutions we look at below are not enough to help your son or daughter, there remain a host of other interventions that are also available.

Bottom line: You are likely to see improvement in your son or daughter if you try several of the recommendations described below. But if you do not observe any difference in your son or daughter within two weeks, then consider changing tactics and trying other recommendations from this list.

If you still see no changes in your teen after a month or two, then it’s time to consult with a counselor or your pediatrician.

Related: 6 Ways Parents Can Communicate With Their Teenagers Better (According To Teens)

Recommendations From A Nationwide Panel Of Experts

1. Trust Your Parental Instinct.

Dr. Sabrina Stutz, a pediatric psychologist at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, California notes that “Sometimes, it is difficult for teens to recognize their own behavior changes or communicate their mood. Parents know their children better than anyone else. Trust your instincts when you notice changes in their appetite, weight, sleep, social engagement, and motivation.” 

Depressed And Anxious Teens
Depressed And Anxious Teens

No one has spent more time with your teenager than you. Think of yourself as the ‘subject matter expert.’ If you sense that something is amiss with your teen don’t ignore your concerns. Explore further. Get a clear understanding of whether your son or daughter is simply going through normal adolescent changes, or struggling with depression/anxiety.

2. Begin A Conversation.

One way to find the answers to your questions is to have a conversation with your teen. When you do, Dr. Carla Marie Manly (she is an author and has a private practice in California) recommends the following: “Listen and be present! Anxiety and depression can be reduced when parents listen nonjudgmentally and make emotional space for their children to talk, vent, or “just be.”

“When parents ask thoughtful, open-ended questions, a teen often responds in the moment or even hours or days later. For example, a parent might say, “I’ve noticed that you seem anxious, and I’m free to talk if that sounds good to you. What’s going on for you lately?”  When talking with teens, it’s important to steer clear of multi-tasking, make great eye contact, avoid being pushy, and LISTEN fully without being critical.”

Some teens initially shy away from talking with their parents. They fear being judged, or they have the mistaken belief that leaning on a parent for support makes them appear ‘childlike.’

Depressed And Anxious Teens
Depressed And Anxious Teens

Caitlin Garstkiewicz (a licensed clinical social worker in Chicago) sympathizes with parents who know their teen is suffering but find their attempts to talk met with silence or angry rejection. She suggests that parents in this situation do the following:

“Make yourself available, even if your teen is pushing away. Being a teenager is such a weird time, and when we add depression or anxiety, it can feel incredibly debilitating. it would not be uncommon for a teen to want to shy away. However, a parent’s presence can be so empowering to a teen. Whether it’s through offering to take a walk with them, leaving notes of encouragement, making their favorite meal, or asking them to dedicate a weekly time to check in with one another; it is important to ensure they know their parents are available for them.” 

3. Respectfully Provide A Reality Check.

When your teen does begin to talk, what do you say if the conversation leads you to conclude that your son, or daughter, is wrestling with depression or anxiety?

Depressed And Anxious Teens
Depressed And Anxious Teens

Dr. Anjhula Mya Singh Bais has found it helpful to have parents ask their teens to imagine a courtroom scene: “Have the teen act like a lawyer and subject those negative thoughts [that] cause anxiety or depression to the following examination: There are many Netflix/Sitcom series that depicts a courtroom. Ask your teen to imagine the plaintiff, the defense, the judge in the courtroom. The plaintiff accuses the defendant, ‘They stole my car.’ The judge says ‘What is the evidence?’

The plaintiff says ‘I have a feeling they did it’. The judge replies ‘Feeling? I don’t care about feelings. Feelings don’t equal facts. You need to give me concrete evidence and by concrete, I mean relevant, e.g. video footage of a parking lot, not your cat, otherwise case dismissed’

Many times this type of story/visualization exercise gives teens an “aha” moment. They realize the fallacy of treating feelings as though they are facts. It prompts them to rethink assumptions. “If your friend didn’t reply to a text, how do you know they don’t like you, what is the evidence? It may be that they got a traffic ticket.”

This approach is intended to encourage your son, or daughter, to use their power of reasoning to shift how they think about those concerns that cause them to be anxious or depressed. For many teens, it can be an effective first step.

But a word of caution is required. Don’t allow this approach to lead you to argue with your teen. The point of using the ‘courtroom’ metaphor is to put feelings/illogical thoughts on trial, not your teen.

Despite your intention to be reassuring that there is no factual basis for distress, it may be that your son, or daughter, will respond to this talk with anger, or withdrawal. Your child may believe you “just don’t understand.”

When this reaction occurs it is best to move on to some other approach.

Related: 49 Phrases To Calm an Anxious Child

4. Structure And Predictability Are Reassuring.

Lynn R. Zakeri, LCSW, who has a private practice in Chicago, points out that what teens need is “The same things we need: A schedule, a structure, [and] a reason to wake up every day.”

With that in mind, she suggests brainstorming with teens on “what will be good about tomorrow, and how to make that something happen (bake cookies, facetime a cousin, etc.). 

Admittedly, most teens who are extremely anxious or depressed will answer “There won’t be anything good about tomorrow! Why are you torturing me?” Yes, I know, that response makes you want to give yourself a time out with an adult beverage. Please don’t. Hang in there.

If your teen cannot think of anything good that might take place the next day simply respond by pointing out one or two things that have gone well in the past week. Then, in a matter of fact tone of voice, let your teen know that it is possible something similar could happen tomorrow (for example, that they do well on an exam, soccer practice is fun, a friend invites them over to their home, etc.).

By patiently raising these possibilities you provide a counterweight to your teen’s tendency to expect the worst.

Depressed And Anxious Teens
Depressed And Anxious Teens

A slightly different approach involves starting off by asking your teen to tell you one or two things that have gone well over the past 48 hours. You are looking for anything positive, even things that may seem of little consequence (for example, your teen enjoyed walking home from school with a friend).  Once you get an answer, follow up by asking “What is it that you did to help make that happen?”

Be prepared. Most depressed/anxious teens will respond “Not a thing. It was dumb luck.”

But of course, that is not 100 percent true. They almost surely had some role in creating that small bit of good fortune. If your teen passed an exam that he, or she, expected to fail, then point out that it was related to staying awake in class, or studying, or bribing one of the smart kids in class (let’s ignore that last explanation).

If the good thing that happened was an invitation to spend the night with a friend, this must have had something to do with your son or daughter being a good friend. Nearly always there is some role your teen played in helping a good turn of events come to pass. Your job is to simply point out the role your son or daughter played in bringing that about.

Don’t argue, just make the connection clear.

Lastly, ask how your teen how he or she can use that insight to make tomorrow a better day. If you don’t get a response move on and provide some suggestions: “Well, you passed your math test and that was because you spent some time studying for the exam. You did this even though you were depressed and tired. You didn’t give up. You didn’t let your depression win. So I bet if you start off tomorrow with that same attitude of persistence, of not giving up when things are tough, more good things will happen.”

If your teen is willing, this would be a good exercise to at the end of each day.

Give them a notepad and pen, then ask that each evening they spend five minutes writing down one or two things that had gone well that day. Next to each item, they should jot down what role they had in bringing about that positive outcome, and how they can use that same skill to make tomorrow a little brighter.

After a short time of completing these nightly entries, most teens will begin to feel a renewed sense of optimism and control over their future. It will not be the sort of big step forward that sets off fireworks, but it will be a step forward.

5. Encourage Teens To Act How They Wish To Feel.

Dr. Victoria Chialy Smith, a licensed clinical psychologist, and owner of Hope+Wellness in Northern Virginia recommends that parents encourage their teens to engage in positive behaviors.

“When a teen first becomes anxious or depressed, a parent’s natural tendency may be to help their teen avoid situations triggering these emotions (e.g.., school, sports practice). However, doing so only increases anxiety and depression and often exacerbates problems in your teen’s day to day functioning. Instead, communicate your empathy and understanding of their emotions, while sticking to your limits and encouraging positive, healthy behaviors.”

This deserves emphasis. Most teens (and adults) respond to chronic feelings of depression and anxiety by withdrawing. They shy away from engaging in activities that had, in the past, provided a sense of pleasure, interpersonal connection, and purpose.

Related: Anxiety In Children: 15 Calming Things You Can Say As A Parent

Depressed And Anxious Teens
Depressed And Anxious Teens

The anxious teen does this because he, or she, fears judgment, failure, or rejection. If this goes on long enough, the adolescent will begin to lose interest as well. That is, he or she will also no longer be attracted to the idea of meeting with friends, pursuing a hobby, engaging in sports, and so forth (what mental health experts call anhedonia, a major symptom of depression).

Although initially the choice to withdraw causes a teen to feel more comfortable, it comes at a terrible cost.

The anxiety and depression get worse. This, in turn, causes urges for isolation to grow stronger. Like a snowball rolling downhill these behaviors and fears gain momentum, each feeding off the other.

If not corrected, some teens eventually become fearful of even leaving the house.

The cure is to encourage (and if need be to force) your son or daughter to remain engaged in constructive activities. This may not make you popular, but that’s a small price to pay with what is at stake.

Dr. Patricia Celan, a Psychiatry Resident at Dalhousie University in Canada, also emphasizes this point, specifically when helping a depressed teenager. “ Encourage your teen to become more involved in things that [he/she] may enjoy. One common component of treatment for depression is behavioral activation, in which you increase your positive emotions by doing activities that feel rewarding and lift your spirits. This may mean suggesting your adolescent child sign up for activities that you may not fully understand, but you can recognize that their happiness is paramount.”

6. Gaining A Sense Of Control.

Dr.Smith encourages parents to help their adolescent children to develop a sense of control over their lives.

“Teens often feel as if they have limited control in their lives as they navigate SATs and the college admissions process and the immense pressure faced by these major milestones. Provide a sense of control to your child whenever possible to help them feel a sense of agency, independence, and empowerment – all within the structure you provide. For example, you can let them choose among options presented by you, or have them make independent choices on smaller decisions to increase in scale as you feel comfortable with their growing abilities.”

One of the important aspects of this approach is that it helps teens to prepare for that time in life when they launch off from home and begin making independent decisions. Having them practice independent decision making while still living at home provides a safety net.

This is similar to novice gymnasts who practice dangerous maneuvers while wearing a belt attached to a rope suspended from the ceiling. When they make a mistake, the rope is there to keep them from falling too hard.

As your teen makes decisions that lead to success, his/her confidence will grow (confidence is an antidote to anxiety and depression).

Depressed And Anxious Teens: Experts Give Practical Advice On How To Help (Including Checklists)
Depressed And Anxious Teens

But what if your teen makes reasonable decisions and they turn out poorly?  

You want to applaud that effort as well. Why? Because it teaches your child that no one failure is definitive. This does not mean that you pretend things worked out well when they did not. Only that you give credit for them having made a reasonable decision, and trust that they can pick themselves up and move forward.

Your teen will learn that failure is a part of life. It happens to everyone. What’s more, those who dream big and dare greatly will fail more often than those who play it safe.

Help your teen put failure in perspective, learn from it, then pick themselves up and meet the next challenge head on.

7. Focus On Your Teen’s Efforts.

Dr. Stutz makes a similar point when encouraging parents to praise their teen’s efforts to cope, even when those efforts are not successful.

Overcoming anxiety and depression can be challenging, and teens will need to try new coping skills that they might not be experts at, yet. It is helpful for parents to acknowledge their adolescent’s effort, even if it didn’t help their symptoms, (e.g., “I’m so proud of you for taking space to try to calm your body,” or “It was cool of you to come for a walk with me even when you really didn’t feel like getting out of bed”).”

Most teens will respond to such parental encouragement with increased persistence and determination. 

8. Meditation And Relaxation.

Depressed And Anxious Teens: Experts Give Practical Advice On How To Help (Including Checklists)
Depressed And Anxious Teens

For anxiety one of the best researched interventions involves learning how to shift into a state of relaxation. The reason this is effective in combating anxiety is that it is impossible for the mind to be both relaxed and tense (anxious).

Consequently, if someone can learn to put them self into a relaxed state of mind, they will have gained a powerful tool in combating anxiety.

When teens acquire strong meditation skills, they are able to quickly and easily dampen down anxiety. The initial stages of learning to meditate, however, can be difficult. There is a tendency to constantly ask “Am I becoming relaxed yet?” “Am I doing this correctly?” “Why don’t I feel as though all my worries and concerns are evaporating like the morning mist off the stupid lake I’m supposed to be thinking about? Geeze, the lake is probably filled with alligators. Just my luck. Or sharks! Can lakes have sharks? I’ve heard they don’t but what if they do…”

This train of thought is just a few miles short of being helpful.

So the first tip in learning to meditate is to stop the constant monitoring of your response. That is about as productive as trying to not think of a pink elephant while constantly questioning whether you have stopped thinking of pachyderms.

Persistence wins the day. Most people find that with regular practice progress is made quickly.

Related: 9 Things Every Parent with an Anxious Child Should Try

If your teen is willing, have him or her take ten minutes a day to meditate. Not in front of the television. Not with their phone next to their side. Not in front of their computer.

Put all distractions aside.

They will find the guided meditation exercises by Barbara Fredrickson to be of great help. But, of course, there are many other meditation sources that can be found. The important thing is to find a guided meditation that your teen enjoys and will consistently use.

After meditating once or twice daily for two weeks most people begin to notice a change in their mood. A shift in the frequency, or intensity, of their anxiety. This is similar to making progress when first going to the gym. It takes a little time to feel the impact of your efforts: the increase in strength and an improved sense of well being.

When your son or daughter begins to feel the difference that meditating has made in their anxiety, it’s time to get greedy. Look for even more progress. Keep the momentum building. Have your teen begin to meditate 20 minutes each day (ten minutes in the morning, and ten in the evening).

If they refuse don’t push. Continue with ten minutes a day. Slower progress is better than no progress as a result of pushing so hard that they stop meditating altogether.

9. Positive Psychology.

Another approach to help your teen focuses on using positive aspects of life to improve mental well being (this comes from the field of Positive Psychology). Instead of focusing directly on the problem, teens are encouraged to shift their focus on those things that are going well in life, or those things that they can do that will make them happier.

The rationale for this strategy can easily be grasped by the following metaphor. If you are growing a flower garden then you wish to minimize the impact of weeds. One way to do this is to spend a good deal of time and effort pulling weeds out by the root. Another way to minimize their impact, however, is to focus on helping the flowering plants to flourish.

When the flowers are abundant and healthy, weeds get crowded out, and those that remain become less of a nuisance. The thriving flowering plants become the focus of the garden.

So too with life. When the positive aspects of daily life are going well, the importance of setbacks, frustrations, and uncertainties begin to fade. The focus shifts to what is thriving in the present, and the promise of the future.

There has been a great deal of research examining whether this approach is effective. What has been found is that using Positive Psychology approaches to anxiety and depression frequently results in clear, albeit often modest, improvements. Because we are looking for every advantage we can get to help your teen, these are well worth trying.

Let’s look at a couple of ways Positive Psychology can be used to help teens break through the doldrums of depression and anxiety.

Gratitude

Encouraging gratitude is one of the most commonly studied means of improving mood and lifting depression. The first way to do this is to begin to keep a gratitude journal.

Have your son, or daughter, write down two or three things for which they are grateful prior to going to sleep. Typical examples include being grateful for family, friends, a beautiful sunset, good health, belonging to some organization (sports team, choir, debate team, church group), receiving a Starbucks gift card, etc.

Very few entries will include life changing events for which your teen is grateful. Most entries will focus on the small moments in life that each of us tend to forget about. This is point – by keeping a journal we begin to better appreciate the numerous small blessings that enrich our lives.

Each morning, afternoon, and evening, the teen should take a minute or two and focus on those items that were entered into the journal.

Repeat the process three times a week (research indicates that three times a week is more effective than doing this every night). As the journal grows it will take a little more time to review the entries. Limit the time of review to five minutes. This brief time spent reviewing past entries is important.

Your teen should block out all distractions and really savor the ways in which his or her life has been enriched by the points of good fortune chronicled in the journal. 

Best Possible Self

Anxious and depressed teens tend to have low self-esteem. They become ensnared in a psychological trap where they compare their worst moments in life with the ‘highlight reels’ put forth by peers on social media platforms.

To break out of this trap it can be helpful for an adolescent to imagine what life might be like if their best qualities were to be fully developed. How might life change, and in what ways could it begin to grow and flourish?

Over the past 20 years, psychologists have studied the impact that adopting this perspective has on those who are depressed and anxious. It turns out to be a powerful way to kick start optimism (a potent antidote to depression and anxiety).

If you would like your teen to try this out, have him/her set aside some quite time each day. This should be scheduled on a calendar, just like an appointment. That way it is not forgotten or put off for late in the day when it will invariably be set aside. Make a schedule. Consistency is crucial for success.

Depressed And Anxious Teens: Experts Give Practical Advice On How To Help (Including Checklists)
Depressed And Anxious Teens

About ten to fifteen minutes is needed. For the first week teens should do this exercise daily. After that consider reducing the frequency to three or four times a week. Eventually you can reduce this to once weekly.

How, specifically, do you go about getting the most out of this Best Self Ever exercise? Easy. Find a quiet place to sit. No interruptions. Set a timer for ten or fifteen minutes. Have a pen and paper.

After quieting one’s mind begin to think about what the best version of yourself would be like.

Not the fantasy version where you can fly or have superhuman strength. Save those thoughts for another time. This is a reality grounded exercise.

What would the best version of you be like, and more importantly, how would this change your life? Begin to write what comes to mind. There is no need to worry about spelling, grammar, etc. Remind your teen that no one is looking over his/her shoulder. No one is grading their writing. 

This should be approached with the mindset that your son or daughter has already worked very hard to achieve their goals. They have succeeded in hitting the targets in life that are of the deepest importance to them.

The question for your teen is “What qualities did you use to achieve these goals? Was it persistence, creativity, ability to work with others?”  

Also ask, “How would my life be different?” Not just in regard to having achieved certain goals, but more generally. Would your best possible self-have deeper friendships; be more adventurous and explore the world; be more generous and involved in charitable activities.

The point is to explore the possibilities that exist if your teen were to fully develop his or her strengths.

Stop The Bullies

Some teens who are bullied suffer in silence. When this happens it is often because they are embarrassed. They already feel weak and humiliated. To disclose to their parents that they are being bullied just adds to their sense of shame. It makes them feel even more fragile.

Many teens also worry that their parents will go to the school, and this (in their minds) would make matters worse.

If your teen is depressed or anxious, and you cannot discern what is causing the distress, it is wise to consider whether bullying might be involved.

Depressed And Anxious Teens
Depressed And Anxious Teens

Talk to your teen. Speak directly to the subject. There is no need to be subtle when asking about this subject (such approaches can add to the sense of this being an embarrassing topic).

If it turns out that your son, or daughter, is being bullied you will need to take action. Most youngsters have little idea how to effectively deal with a bully by themselves. This is why your help will be essential.

Let’s look at several ways you can respond if your teen is being bullied.

Enlist The Help Of The School

It would be terrific if you were able to count on the school to help you deal with bullies. My experience over the past 25 years has led me to conclude that schools are uniquely inept at dealing with this problem.

This is not for a lack of concern, but usually due to a lack of courage. Teachers and administrators are afraid of upsetting parents. Normally, the only circumstance under which teachers and administrators take decisive action is when the bullying is so egregious that there is no question but that one student is in the wrong. Even then, successful intervention by schools is rare.

Nevertheless, it is important to bring the issue up with teachers and administrators (usually the school principal). Be specific about what the problem is and how you expect the school to respond in order to safeguard the well-being of your son or daughter.

Make certain to contact school personnel through email (a written record of your attempts to engage the school is important). Follow up with ‘in person’ meetings. After each meeting send the main participants an email that summarizes what was spoken about and the agreed-upon steps for resolving the problem.

This type of documentation helps keep the school accountable and is vital for effective follow up.

If this fails to resolve the issue (again, it probably will not have the desired outcome of ending the bullying), then some of the following suggestions may help.

Related: 6 Ways Parents Can Communicate With Their Teenagers Better (According To Teens)

Contact The Bully’s Parents

Call the parents of the teen who is causing the problems. Calmly describe your concerns and attempt to engage the parents in setting limits on their teen. It may be that the parents are unaware of the problem and are highly invested in not raising a youngster who engages in this sort of behavior.

Enroll Your Teen In An ‘Antibully’ Program

Find a local program that teaches teens how to stand up to bullies. Your teen will be encouraged by learning new skills for dealing with bullies, and by forming friendships with other teens who struggle with the same challenge. A sense of optimism will grow and take root as they hear success stories from their peers.

Encourage Healthy Friendships

Help your teen develop healthy friendships with other students. This often creates a buffer from bullies. It also provides a counterweight to the negative impact of being bullied (instead of feeling helpless and rejected they will experience being accepted, appreciated, and supported).

Instill A Sense Of Physical Competency

Enroll your teen in Jujitsu training. No, the goal is not to have your teen play ‘whack a mole’ with his or her tormentor. But this type of training will increase your teen’s confidence tremendously. Moreover, if the bully does push things to the point of physical confrontation, your son or daughter will be more than capable of defending themselves. In all likelihood, the bully would then move on to other targets.

A word of caution. Not all martial arts are created equal. There are many karate studios in nearly every city, large or small. These studios teach important lessons about self-discipline and respect for authority. What they generally do not teach is effective self-defense. Many of these dojos (not all) focus on quickly promoting students in order to maintain a large class size (it is part of a business model).

Most Jujitsu and Judo studios take a different approach. This means getting promoted to a higher belt occurs more slowly, but what is learned in the process (persistence, discipline, confidence, teamwork and combative skills) is more deeply rooted.

Find a Jujitsu (or Judo) school and you’ll be good to go.

Depressed And Anxious Teens

Change Schools

Consider removing your teen from school. This may mean you change to a different school, a private school, charter school, or even home school. The deep and pervasive impact of severe bullying is not worth the victory of graduating from high school where bullying takes place.

The last suggestion is to seek legal counsel. Many schools fail to protect children from bullying and in doing so open themselves up for litigation. It is the school’s responsibility to protect every student, and when they wantonly fail to do so they should be held accountable.

Very often, when the best efforts by parents have failed to mobilize the school to take effective action, an aggressive attorney wakes them from their negligent slumber. The prospect of legal action and negative publicity has a sobering impact. What’s more, this sort of action helps the bullied teen to feel empowered. It can be a potent antidote to the feelings of helplessness that so often crop up among those who have been bullied.

Now we move on to the last three expert backed tips for helping a depressed or anxious teenager.

Shifting Your Teen’s Focus Onto Others

One powerful way to lift your teen’s mood is by getting him or her to spend time each week helping others. No, not helping with laundry, washing the car, or mowing the lawn. All of those are great, but that is not the sort of help I have in mind.

Instead, get your teen involved in charitable work. A few hours a week at a soup kitchen, or teaching children how to read, working at a sports camp for underprivileged boys and girls, volunteering at the local animal shelter, etc.

These acts of altruism shift the teen’s focus from their own distress onto the positive impact their actions can make on others. In addition, involvement in charitable work helps teens gain perspective regarding the severity of their own problems (most often, seeing them as less overwhelming).

Lastly, by helping improve the lives other others teens experience a growing sense of competency – a sure fire antidote to depression.

1. Make A List.

Another way to boost teen competency, which helps diminish depression, is to keep a diary of ‘What I Did Today’ (WIDT). For best results your teen should add to the list throughout the day – don’t save it for the evening when many of the small accomplishments of the day have been forgotten.

When your teen finishes a homework assignment, completes a chore, exercises, feeds the dog, runs an errand, babysits a sibling, this needs to be written on the WIDT list.

Each evening set aside a few minutes to focus on what was accomplished, and how this made the day better. 

2. Lifestyle Interventions.

One of the easiest ways to help teens become happier and more confident is to make certain the basics of a healthy lifestyle are in place. These basics include:

  • Exercise- This does not need to be Olympian efforts extending for hours at a time. Twenty minutes a day is sufficient to improve mood. Walking, swimming, playing basketball, weight lifting high-intensity training, and much more work very well.

Exercise gives a momentary boost from endorphins, makes one feel energized, enhances a feeling of control, encourages the development of self-confidence, and provides a structure within the week.

  • A Good Night’s Sleep- Most teens require more sleep than adults, yet many get even less sleep. Add anxiety or depression to the mix and the quality of sleep declines. This results in fatigue, cognitive slowing, and worsening mood.

Help your teen develop good sleep habits: a consistent routine in the evening, a set bedtime, avoidance of caffeinated drinks prior to bedtime, etc.

Depressed And Anxious Teens: Experts Give Practical Advice On How To Help (Including Checklists)
Depressed And Anxious Teens
  • Wholesome Nutrition- Many teens neglect proper nutrition. In fact, most teens pay little attention to what they put in their bodies. This can have a profound impact on their mood and behavior. Parents will have the most luck in helping their son or daughter receive the nutrition they need by providing healthy meals, and not bringing home unhealthy snacks from the store. Your teen may still grab a hamburger, French fries, and soda at the school cafeteria, but at home, there will be healthy food providing the fuel they need.
  • Positive Social InteractionDepressed and anxious teens often avoid their peers. This worsens their fears, sadness, and sense of isolation. Encourage your teen to meet with friends, join a sports team, get involved in a school club, etc. Feeling understood and appreciated by peers is a powerful way to combat depression and anxiety.
  • Develop A Daily Routine- Predictability is often thought of as boring. Something that sucks the lifeblood out of each day. The truth is that predictability creates a sense of calm, confidence, and offers a steady base from which adventures can be launched. If your teen does not have a daily routine it would be helpful to set some limits. Start with the fundamentals: a wake-up time and bedtime, a schedule for doing homework, a specific time each day when dinner is served, etc. If everyone in the family is following some form of a routine, it will eventually be seen as a normal part of family life.
Depressed And Anxious Teens: Experts Give Practical Advice On How To Help (Including Checklists)
Help Depressed And Anxious Teens

Final Note

Do some preparation prior to talking to your teen about your concerns. Nicole Proulx-King, (a mental health therapist at Husson University’s Wellness Center), encourages parents to have the titles of helpful books about depression or anxiety, and links to relevant websites, on hand.

In addition, Caitlin Garstkiewicz recommends having some counseling websites in mind in case your teen wishes to talk to a counselor.  

That way there is no need to delay. No extra time for your son or daughter to have ‘second thoughts’ about getting help. You are able to respond immediately with “That’s great. Good choice. I will call some counselors that come highly recommended and make an appointment with one of them.”

This type of decisive response instills confidence and builds momentum towards a positive outcome.

By following the guidance provided above, being persistent, and using good judgment, your teen will soon be on the road to living a happier, healthier life.

If you know of a teen that needs help with anxiety, depression, or some other distress, feel free to get in touch. We’re glad to be of help and can also provide referrals to others if it turns out that we are not the best fit for your teen’s needs (916 790-5138).

Resources:

Books:
Anxiety Relief for Teens: Essential CBT Skills and Mindfulness Practices to Overcome Anxiety and Stress by Regine Galanti PhD 
Depression: A Teen’s Guide to Survive and Thrive by Jacqueline B. Toner and Claire A. B. Freeland 
Links:
Social Anxiety - Learn how to feel confident
Curb Stomp Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
How To Know When Medication Makes Sense
Acting The Way You Want To Feel
How To Find The Best Therapist For You
Five Simple Ways To Help Teens With Anxiety

Written By Forrest Talley
Originally Appeared In Forrest Talley
Depressed Anxious Teens Practical Advice pin

Forrest Talley Ph.D.

Forrest Talley, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Folsom California. Prior to opening this practice, he spent 21 years working at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center. During that time he supervised MFT and SW interns, psychology interns, and medical residents. In addition, he was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at UCDMC. He worked in several capacities at the UCDMC CAARE Center. These include Co-Training Director of the APA approved psychology internship program, the Individual and Group Therapy Manager, primary supervisor for interns and staff, and the main supplier of bagels/cream cheese for all souls at the UCDMC CAARE Center.View Author posts

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