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

Depressed Anxious Teens Practical Advice

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
Scroll to Top