Teen Depression: How Parents and Caregivers Can Offer Support

Learn how to help your child cope with symptoms of depression.

father and daughter going over homework together

Updated on October 24, 2023.

If you care for a teenager with depression, you’re far from alone. Teen depression rates in the United States have increased significantly in recent years. And while depression can be hard on anyone, it can be especially tough watching a child go through the experience.

The issue was likely worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2011, 8.3 percent of adolescents aged 12 to 17 reported having a major depressive episode (MDE) within the previous 12 months, according to the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health. By 2021, that number rose to just over 20 percent. Adolescent females were more likely to have MDEs compared to adolescent males.

Teenagers with depression are at higher risk of falling behind in school, having relationship difficulties, misusing drugs and alcohol, and attempting suicide. Fortunately, depression is a treatable disorder—but getting a prompt, proper diagnosis is critical. Reach out to a healthcare provider (HCP) if your teen displays one or more of the following signs: 

  • Persistent sadness for two weeks or more
  • Withdrawal from family or friends
  • Decline in school performance
  • Sleeping much more or less than before
  • Unmotivated to participate in things they once enjoyed 

“If you start to notice behavioral or emotional changes or if they're not acting the way they used to, you can't ignore it,” says Scott Adams, PhD, CEO of Highlands Behavioral Health System of Denver, Colorado. He sees a lot of parents brush off depression as a “phase” their child is going through. But you should take any change in behavior or mood seriously. 

“If your gut is telling you that something isn’t right or something is off, then pay attention to that,” he adds. 

Supporting a teen with depression

Providing love, care, and support is essential for your teen’s emotional health and can aid depression treatment. Try the following strategies to help connect.

Spend time with your child. One-on-one time can help foster trust and maintain open lines of communication. “Try to set aside a time each day to spend with them,” says Adams. Make sure this quality time doesn’t involve the internet, television, social media, or other distractions. Volunteering, shopping, or going for food are good options.

Keep your ears open. Whether your teen is showing warning signs of depression or they’ve already been diagnosed, listening to them is key. 

“You have to ask questions, especially if you’re seeing behavioral changes,” says Adams. Reprimanding them for acting out won’t help if they’re having trouble controlling their mood and behavior. It may also make it seem like you’re not a safe person to talk to about their feelings.

When you talk to them, using a non-threatening, non-lecturing tone is best. Adams says you want to access and acknowledge their feelings to really understand their state of mind.

Help your child make physical health a priority. Poor nutrition, lack of sleep, and not enough physical activity may exacerbate teen depression symptoms, says Adams. “Try to make sure that you're providing them nutritious meals and that you're giving them the opportunity to get plenty of sleep,” he adds.

Exercise can reduce both depression symptoms and risk in people of all ages, including teens. If possible, encourage them to go for a walk, join the local gym, or have a catch with a neighborhood friend. Keep in mind that your kids learn by your example.

Another wise practice: Make sure screen time isn’t excessive, because when teenagers are online, they’re not active. Some research, including a 2022 meta-analysis published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, has found that screen time is an independent predictor of depression. In other words, even when accounting for other contributors, like inactivity, too much screen time by itself is linked to depression risk.

Take care of yourself, too. It’s easy for caregivers to focus their lives on an adolescent who may be depressed. But that can have unintended consequences, says Adams.

“You really need to make sure you're not spending so much time and energy on the teen who's depressed that you're ignoring your own needs and the needs of the rest of your family,” he explains. Parents and caregivers should seek support.

“You need to make sure that you're reaching out and getting the kind of support you need, so the whole family can make it through this,” says Adams. “It's not just an individual child who would be going through this. It affects everybody.”

Caregivers can get help through in-person or online support groups. Organizations like Erika’s Lighthouse and the National Alliance on Mental Illness will help you learn more about your child’s condition. They can also provide access to helpful communities where you can connect with other parents and caregivers going through the same thing.

Don’t turn a blind eye to the risk of suicide. When left untreated, teenage depression can escalate to self-harm or thoughts of suicide. If you suspect that your child is at risk for suicide, if they’ve spoken about it before—and especially if they seem to have a plan or method in mind—don’t downplay the seriousness of their words or behavior. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 24, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most young people who attempt suicide have a serious mental health condition like depression.

For help, call, text, or chat the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. If your teenager is actively considering suicide, stay with them and call 911, or take them to the nearest emergency room.

Where to go for help

Between community resources, HCPs, and therapists, there are plenty of places to turn to for help. But the first step is admitting to yourself that there may be a problem. “As a parent, when you get very emotionally involved, it can be hard to see the forest through the trees,” says Adams. 

“It doesn't hurt to utilize trained professionals,” he says. “This is what they do. This is what they're exposed to every single day.”

Don’t be afraid to seek help—the best thing you can do for your child is get them the treatment they need.

Article sources open article sources

Mat Hassan N, Salim HS, Amaran S, Yunus NI, el at. Prevalence of mental health problems among children with long COVID: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2023 May 17;18(5):e0282538. 
Mojtabai R, Olfson M, Han B. National Trends in the Prevalence and Treatment of Depression in Adolescents and Young Adults. Pediatrics. 2016 Dec;138(6):e20161878.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New CDC data illuminate youth mental health threats during the COVID-19 pandemic. March 31, 2022.
National Institute of Mental Health. Major Depression. Last updated July 2023.
HealthyChildren.org (AAP). Teen Suicide Risk: What Parents Need to Know. Last updated November 17, 2022.
Mayo Clinic. Teen depression. August 12, 2022.
MedlinePlus. Teen Depression. Accessed on July 10, 2023.
Dowd, Stephanie. What to Do if You Think Your Teenager is Depressed. Child Mind Institute. Page last reviewed January 25, 2023.
Khanna P, Chattu VK, Aeri BT. Nutritional Aspects of Depression in Adolescents—A Systematic Review. Int J Prev Med. 2019 Apr 3;10:42.
Garey, Juliann. Teens and Sleep: The Cost of Sleep Deprivation. Child Mind Institute. Page last reviewed February 10, 2023.
Wang X, Cai Z, Jiang W, et al. Systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of exercise on depression in adolescents. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health. 2022 Feb 28;16.
American Academy of Pediatrics. Screen Time Guidelines. Updated May 21, 2023.
Santos RMS, Mendes CG, Bressani GYS, et al. The associations between screen time and mental health in adolescents: a systematic review. BMC Psychology. 2023 Apr 20;11(127).
Li L, Zhang Q, Zhu L, et al. Screen time and depression risk: a meta-analysis of cohort studies. Front Psychol. 2022 Dec 2;13.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 10 Leading Causes of Death, United States, 2020, Both sexes, All Ages, All races. Accessed October 18, 2023.
MedlinePlus. Helping Your Teen with Depression. Page last reviewed November 6, 2022.
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Suicide in Children and Teens. Page last updated June 2021.

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