Stressed and Depressed (pt. 2): What Parents can do to Reverse the Teen Trend

Research shows that teens are now more stressed than adults and are overdosing on drugs and committing suicide at higher rates. In Part 1: How American Teens are Hurting Themselves, we saw from a pediatrician’s perspective how stressed and depressed teens are abusing drugs and alcohol, committing suicide and even finding new ways–like extreme “fad” diets and “salt and ice” burns–to intentionally hurt themselves, to somehow dull the pain.

By teaching our teens healthy living and what to do when they feel overwhelmed, tired, angry, depressed or anxious, parents can help prevent teen depression, mitigate symptoms and empower their teens to better manage stress and their emotions.

If your teen is stressed or depressed, here are some practical things you can do to help:

  • Seek professional help—depression can be fatal. 15% of depressed people commit suicide. Start by seeing your primary care physician or going to the ER. Your doctor can make sure depression is not related to medications your child is already taking, and run blood tests to be sure that thyroid or hormonal disorders aren’t contributing to the problem. Many primary care physicians will start depressed children and adolescents on anti-depressants so that they don’t have to wait until they can get a psychiatrist appointment.
  • Encourage exercise. Exercise has been shown to be as effective as antidepressants in some studies. Help your child find some form of exercise they really can do on a regular basis. Go for a daily walk with him/her. Encourage dance. Join an aerobics class together. Dust off your bikes. Take a tennis class.

  • Hold your tongue when you want to criticize. Depressed teens and kids and be overly sensitive to criticism. Try not to criticize when you are angry. Choose your words carefully and try to find the most effective way to deliver constructive criticism.
  • Expect that your depressed teen can be very irritable and moody. Remember, their body has been assaulted by changing hormones. If you’re experiencing menopause or andropause, as many parents of teens are, you might be able to empathize with this point. Weathering the storm of such moodiness can be hard. Take care of yourself. Know when you need to take a break from your teen rather than blow up at them.
  • Go outside. A 2007 study by researchers at the University of Essex in England found that a daily outdoor walk could be as effective as taking antidepressant drugs for treating mild to moderate depression. And it wasn’t just the exercise: patients who walked in a shopping mall did not get the same antidepressant effect as those who walked through green spaces.

  • Help them contribute to your family. Give them manual labor jobs. Paint the house. Pull weeds. Play games with younger children or ask them to hold a baby (with your supervision).
  • Help them help other people. Do service projects. Serve food at a soup kitchen, volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, raise money for a charity. Try to find ways to help your child think less about themselves and more about others.
  • Figure out your child’s love language, and recognize that it might not be yours. Children need love with words, actions, and physical touch. Everyone needs all three, but most people respond better to certain expressions of love. Does your child need to hear praise and “I love you” more? Is this hard for you to say? Or do they need more physical touch, a hand on the shoulder or a hug? It can be especially hard for some dads to show physical love to boys, but perhaps this is what your child needs. Perhaps your child needs more time with you, one-on-one activities, favorite dinners prepared, or other acts of service even when you don’t think they “deserve” it.

  • Limit time on Facebook and social media. In 2011 the American Academy of Pediatrics coined the term “Facebook Depression” and warned that too much time on social media could lead to adolescent depression. This claim has been disputed, but I think it is still important to realize that social media can’t replace an in-person or even telephone relationships. One study of girls in stressful situations found that those who spoke with their moms on the phone had lower levels of stress hormones after the call than those who conversed with their moms via text messaging. People “market” themselves on Facebook, painting an idealized version of themselves that leaves out reality. Teach your child to market themselves when they need a job, not when they need a friend.
  • Encourage healthy eating. Yes, diet matters. There is no dietary cure for depression but what you eat can affect your mood. I had one depressed teen tell me all she had eaten that day was smiley face fries and Twizzlers. Limit caffeine and junk food. Don’t skip breakfast and watch school snacks and lunches. Eat a balanced diet and use common sense. There is growing evidence that omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D may be effective in improving depression symptoms. The more frequent the family meals, the better the emotional health of the adolescent, according to a study of more than 26,000 Canadian teens between 11 and 15 years of age. Teens with more frequent family meals had fewer emotional and behavioral problems, were more trusting and had more helpful behaviors toward others, and had higher life satisfaction regardless of family economics. Click to learn how to have a healthy family table.
  • Address addiction. Drugs, alcohol, food, the internet, pornography, sex, and reckless behavior can all be addictive. I’ve even seen kids addicted to eating non-food products such as paper or hair. Watch for addictive behaviors and address them early. Click for information on the impact of pornography on children.
  • Take care of yourself and your marriage. Taking care of kids with depression is exhausting, even depressing. Many parents feel helpless, or have a desire to give up. Violent behavior and disrespect for household rules leads many parents to kick depressed teens out of the house, or let them run away. Also, children whose parents divorce have higher rates of psychological distress and mental illness. You can’t take care of a depressed kid unless you take care of yourself and your marriage first. This was true when your child was a newborn, and it’s still true now. Like they say on the airplane, put your oxygen mask on first, then assist your child. Click here for more information on the importance of healthy marriages to child and adolescent health.

Someday your child’s depression may turn out to be a gift to them—a life experience that will make them stronger, more compassionate, and better prepared to live a healthy adult life outside of the home. Perhaps it is a good thing that so many of our children struggle with mental illness while they still live under our roofs. This is our chance to help them learn to live with depression and cope with the stresses of life. How could they ever face these challenges alone?

For more information

This blog was taken (with permission) from a blog post on the website, and adapted to fit the mission and values of the American College of Pediatricians. The information in this article is not meant to be used as a means of self-diagnosis. If your child is showing signs or symptoms of depression, please contact your child’s pediatrician or primary care provider as soon as possible so that your child can be accurately diagnosed and undergo the appropriate treatment.

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