Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental health issues people experience, including teens. While teen rates of these mental health issues have been steadily rising in recent years, the pandemic has increased these challenges even more than before for many young people. If you’ve noticed significant changes in your teens mood or behavior, you’re not alone. I created a four-part series of short videos to help parents know how best to support teens who are struggling with anxiety and depression. The videos below focus on:
- Signs and Symptoms
- When to Seek Professional Help and Treatment Options
- How Parents Can Help
- What To Do if Your Child Doesn’t Want Help
Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety
Anxiety is a normal emotion that we all experience sometimes. Feeling nervous before a big test or speech, or worried about traveling alone for the first time are normal anxiety-related experiences. However, when a person feels intense anxiety in situations that normally wouldn’t bring up that feeling, and it goes on for an extended period of time, we call it an anxiety disorder. It involves intense and excessive worry or fear about things that a person wouldn’t typically feel worried about.
These can include things like:
- Significant anxiety about talking to peers
- Hesitation when going places without a parent
- Fear of getting into a car accident
- Fear of making mistakes or getting a poor grade
If the level of worry about these things is so intense and persistent that it impacts their ability to function in their lives, then they may have an anxiety disorder. Symptoms of anxiety can include heart palpitations, sweating, rapid breathing, racing thoughts, and a sense of dread. Someone with anxiety may also experience sleep or appetite changes and have physical complaints of things like headaches or stomach pain.
Signs and Symptoms of Depression
Depression refers to low mood and loss of interest in life activities that go on for an extended period of time. Again, some experiences of low mood and loss of interest can be situational and appropriate such as the death of a loved one, breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or moving to a new place and school where they don’t know anyone. But if the low mood goes on for an extended time and significantly impacts your teen’s ability to do normal activities in their life, then they may have a depressive disorder.
Symptoms can include:
- Loss of interest in doing things they once enjoyed
- Fatigue and sleeping more than usual
- Appetite changes
- Problems concentrating
- Worsening school performance
Anxiety and depression are manageable and treatable issues. It’s important for parents and teens to know that. With the right supports and strategies in place, teens should expect to feel and function better. Parents play a key role in providing support. If you have concerns about these symptoms for your child, discuss them with your healthcare provider or mental health professional.
When to Seek Professional Help
Helping teens with anxiety and depression is important. When a teen is experiencing ongoing symptoms of anxiety or depression that has been going on for an extended period of time, or are getting progressively worse over time, then seeking professional help is important. Any of these kinds of things that have gone on for more than a few weeks and are negatively impacting your teen’s life is something to discuss with a healthcare professional.
Examples include a child who:
- Is not getting to school on time or completing work
- Isn’t eating or sleeping well for an extended period
- Has stopped communicating with peers or doing social activities
- Is sleeping all the time and not participating in normal life activities
The first line of treatment is counseling. Research shows that psychotherapy or counseling is highly effective, particularly therapeutic approaches like cognitive-behavior therapy and mindfulness therapies. In these approaches, people become more aware of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. They learn to tolerate uncomfortable feelings and learn healthy coping skills. Parents also get strategies to support their child as well. Get a referral from a child’s physician, school, church, or online.
Other strategies can also be helpful. Movement and exercise, nutrition-focused approaches (food and supplements), addressing sleep issues, neurofeedback, addressing screen time challenges, and working with the school for supports and accommodations are all important.
Medications for anxiety and depression are available but should be a last resort if other non-medication approaches have not led to significant improvement, and they should only be used together with therapy and other non-medication approaches.
The bottom line is that there are many therapeutic approaches and options available to improve anxiety and depression symptoms for teens. Parents and teens should expect that these symptoms can improve. It’s better to talk to a professional sooner than later, so don’t wait if you have ongoing concerns about your child’s symptoms.
How Parents Can Help
It can be really challenging for parents to know how to help a teen who’s experiencing significant anxiety and/or depression symptoms. Many wonder if they should ignore it and act like it’s not a big deal, or if they should ask about it all the time, or something else. It’s tough parenting teens under normal circumstances, and mental health challenges make it even more stressful and tricky. Here are some strategies that can help:
- The first thing is to recognize that your child is not intentionally having these symptoms, they don’t want to be acting this way or having these challenges. This allows parents to have empathy for their child and take their communication and behavior less personally.
- Communicate regularly and talk about feelings and behavior, even if you aren’t able to fix the situation. Your child needs to know you’re interested, supportive, and want to understand them.
- Aim for the combination of empathy and acknowledging their feelings and the difficulties they are having, while at the same time expressing confidence in their ability to handle situations and hold them to appropriate expectations. It’s important to acknowledge their struggles, while not allowing them to avoid anything that feels uncomfortable or challenging to them.
- Be a model for healthy coping and using tools they are learning about in therapy. Practice deep breathing when stressed, doing mindfulness activities as a family, getting to bed on time, and disconnecting from devices to get some movement in each day.
- Set aside time to do something positive together regularly without stress or expectations. Activities can include watching a movie, making their favorite meal, playing a game, or going for a walk. This shows them that you care, want to be with them even though they’re struggling and that they can count on you. Ultimately the best thing for teens struggling with anxiety or depression is to know they have a steady loving parent who will be there for them no matter what.
What To Do if Your Child Doesn’t Want Help
Anxiety and depression can be common issues with teens, but the often don’t see it as an issue or aren’t interested in pursuing treatment. Parents struggle to know whether it’s best to move forward with treatment even when a child is resisting. Here are some tips for how to address this:
- It’s important to listen to what your teen is expressing, and empathize with how they may be feeling about seeking help. Acknowledge that they may be feeling anxious, embarrassed, ashamed, annoyed, or any number of other uncomfortable emotions around their current struggles and getting help for them.
- Communicate clearly about what the therapy process will be like so they have information and know what to expect. Give them a chance to talk or email with the professional ahead of time to ask questions or express concerns if they want to. Make sure they know that if they work with someone for a period of time and it doesn’t feel comfortable or a good fit for them, you will work on finding someone else who may be a better fit. It’s important for them to understand that their comfort and connection with the therapist are important and will be honored.
- Know that therapists and other professionals skilled at working with teens will understand their resistance and be able to handle it. Ultimately it’s your decision as the parent to move forward with the process of getting therapy or other treatment. This should not be dictated by your teen’s resistance or refusal.
Your child may not be happy with your decision, but you are doing the right thing by getting them the support they need. Communicate their hesitation or resistance to the professionals you’re working with so they can help you address it. And know that if your child is completely unwilling to communicate or participate in treatment, there is a great benefit to you as the parent working with a therapist to get information, strategies, and support around managing these challenges with your child.
I hope you find this information on helping teens with anxiety and depression to be helpful. What struggles have you encountered in your family on this topic? Share in the comments so I can support you!
Screen time usage for kids and teens can also be linked to anxiety and depression. Read my thoughts on Screen Time – How Much Is Too Much? Follow my Instagram page or YouTube channel for even more parenting tips for children of all ages.