Teen Depression and Anxiety: What Parents Should Look for, Ask and Do

By Lauren K. Ayr-Volta, PhD, and Kelly Maynes, PsyD

As we’ve weathered the ups and downs of the pandemic, some parents and pediatric experts have noticed an increase in teen anxiety and depression.

For general advice on how to support your teen, check out Is Your Teen Stressed, Sad or Angry? They May Be Feeling Grief.

If you’re wondering how you’ll know when your teen needs extra help – whether it’s from a counselor or physician, or just more support at home – read on.

What to Look For

Anxiety and depression show up in different ways. Rather than crying, your teen might show sadness through irritability. Rather than talking about their fears, they might withdraw and spend lots more time alone.

You know your teen’s baseline, from how late they like to sleep to how much alone-time they need. If you’ve noticed any of the following changes, it might mean that they’re struggling.

  • How much time do they spend in their room by themselves? Is that more time than they’d normally spend alone? Does it seem like they’re staying in their room when they’d usually be hanging around the family?
  • Does it seem like they’re not talking about their peers as much, or not as engaged as they used to be in texting back and forth? Has their social media activity changed? (For your teen’s safety, it’s a good idea to follow their social media accounts. Here are more online safety tips.)
  • Are there any changes in their mood or general affect? Are they smiling and laughing less? Quieter than usual? More angry, irritable, frustrated or cranky? (Crankiness often comes with the territory for teenagers – but to what degree is it unusual for your teen?)
  • Has there been any change in their interests? Now that it’s summertime and some outdoor activities are resuming, does it seem like they’re not interested in safe, socially distant activities that they used to enjoy?
  • Are they sleeping significantly more or less than usual?
  • Do they seem hopeless about the future? Have they stopped talking about what they want to do next year at school?

> Want tips to help your child cope with stress? Two pediatric psychologists share strategies.

What to Ask Your Teen

  • Take a private moment to express your concern gently and without judgement. For example: “I’ve noticed that you’re spending more time in your room” or “I’ve noticed that you just don’t seem as happy. Can we talk about that?”
  • If your teen has a hard time opening up, try offering up some personal examples to start the conversation. For instance: “This is what I’ve been experiencing in this stressful situation. I’ve been more anxious, and had a harder time thinking about the positives. Is that something you’re feeling too?”
  • If they don’t want to talk at length about their feelings, that’s okay. Get in the habit of doing a quick mood “weather check,” to report when they’re feeling low without the pressure to go into all the details. For example, “I just want to check in on how you’re feeling today, and if you’re worrying about anything in particular” or “Scale of 1 to 10, how are you feeling today?”
  • If you’re worried about your child, ask them directly if they ever have suicidal thoughts or thoughts about harming themselves or others. If the answer is yes, get help right away. See below for how.

> Want more articles like this from pediatric experts you trust? Get our weekly newsletter.

What to Do If Your Teen Needs Help

  • If your teen’s mental or emotional condition may put them or others in danger, get help right away. In Connecticut, you can call 2-1-1 for crisis support, including having a clinician come to your home. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.8255. Or you can text “HOME” to 741741 to text with a crisis counselor.
  • Keep your home safe. Teens who are spending more time at home may be tempted to experiment with household items like cleaning products or over-the-counter or prescription medications, especially if they’re struggling with anxiety or depression. Make sure your teen does not have access to these items.
  • Lots of teens can benefit from mental health support right now. Reach out to your child’s doctor or your insurance provider for help finding a therapist.
  • Remind your teen that it’s normal and appropriate to feel sadness, anxiety, anger and grief right now. Try building the following healthy habits into their day. Here are more ways to support them at home.

Double Down on Healthy Habits

In addition to, or in collaboration with, professional support, many healthy activities have been shown to help with anxiety and depression. These can be coping strategies that you do with your teen at home.

 

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