Teens and depression: What parents need to know about treatment

ArmArm (3)Depression is a treatable condition. With treatment, teens can recover and live a full and active life. There is a continuum of depression along a spectrum of mild, moderate and severe.  A teen can move along this continuum depending on their response to treatment. Without treatment depression can worsen.

The factors contributing to and the treatment plan for each teen’s depression are unique. The treatment plan is developed in collaboration with the teen, family and caregivers and providers. Every plan is tailored to fit the unique needs of the teen and is consistently monitored to make sure it continues to be the best path.

Treatment for depression

There are different types of treatment available for teens struggling with depression. The type of treatment plan depends on the severity of their symptoms.

  • Teens with mild depression have few symptoms and are able to function in many areas of their life. Treatment might include meeting individually with a mental health professional for brief treatment (8 to 12 sessions) to increase and actively engage in healthy coping skills, and reaching out to trusted adults and peers for support. Exercise and physical activity can have a positive impact on mild depression.
  • Teens experiencing moderate depression have more symptoms, which occur consistently over time. Also, there is a noticeable and ongoing negative impact on several areas of their life such as school, relationships with peers and at home. Treatment might include a combination of meeting individually with a mental health professional, attending group counseling sessions and possibly medication. Treatment for moderate depression usually lasts six months or more and will continue as long as needed.
  • Teens experiencing severe depression have symptoms which interfere with every area of life; these symptoms are intense, severe and consistent over time. They may include suicidal thoughts or other safety concerns. Treatment can include a combination of meeting individually with a mental health professional, day treatment, medication and possibly hospitalization if safety is a concern. While hospitalizations and day treatment are usually brief (5 to 14 days), ongoing outpatient supports are necessary to address severe symptoms.
  • A family component to treatment (e.g., family therapy) is helpful at every level of severity. The length of treatment for the family depends on the individual and the extent to which family dynamics contribute to the teen’s struggles. Ongoing support and planning with family and other people close to the teen are important factors in treatment.

How to talk to your teen if you are concerned

Sometimes it is difficult for teens to know and discuss what they are feeling. It may be hard for parents to know what to say and how to approach their teen for fear of upsetting them. Asking your teen how they are doing or how things are going is a start. Sometimes beginning the conversation while driving or preparing a meal makes it easier to talk.

It can be helpful to start the conversation, but just listening goes a long way.

The following recommendations help provide a safe, trusting, understanding and inviting environment for teens to discuss their feelings and issues, which will ultimately allow parents to decide whether their teens need additional emotional and professional support.

  • Approach your teen in a gentle, non-judgmental way. It’s important to make sure teens don’t feel criticized, judged or dismissed.
  • Talk about your teen’s good qualities and strengths. It’s important to remind your teen of their good qualities and strengths for them to feel empowered and esteemed, which will ultimately make them feel supported, understood and loved.
  • Offer caring statements like “I love you, and I am here for you. My job is to keep you healthy and safe.” Do not be afraid to express your love and affection for your child, as it will further reinforce how much you care and want to help. Reminding them that your job is to keep them healthy and safe sends the message that you are not highlighting these concerns because you feel that there is something wrong, but rather because you want them to be emotionally sound and safe.
  • Give your teen specific examples of behaviors that worry you (e.g., stopped having dinner with the family, no longer plays basketball with the neighbors after school). Share your observations. In order to avoid your teen being defensive about your concerns, it is important to provide concrete examples of changes in their behavior that concern you.
  • Discuss and clarify treatment options. Engage your child in brainstorming possible solutions to help them overcome their emotional/behavioral difficulties, and encourage consultation with a mental health provider who can discuss and offer treatment options.


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Some additional tips:   

Use opportunities as they arise to talk about difficulties—maybe when they come home from school, breakfast or dinner time, or whenever your teen seems more open to talking. It can be helpful to start the conversation, but just listening goes a long way.

Instead of suggesting an immediate solution, you might say things like “That sounds difficult,” or “It sounds like you are struggling with a lot right now,” or “That must have been hard,” or just paraphrase what your teen said to make sure you understand it.

  • Ask questions that encourage your teen to share their point of view. It is important to acknowledge and validate your teen’s feelings.
  • Ask them if they need anything from you.
  • Problem solve together. What could be something that they might find helpful? What options are available? How can you work together to help?
  • Give your teen your full attention. We all multi-task, but trying to find a time and place where you can talk without interruption can be helpful. Having a private space where other people aren’t around can help teens feel more comfortable opening up.
  • Use encouraging non-verbal behaviors, showing your child you understand by a pat on the back, a hug, nodding, a thumbs up.

Sometimes it take may take more than one conversation with your teen to determine the best course of action. It’s important to let your teen know you are concerned and want to help them feel better. If your teen isn’t comfortable talking with you, find another trusted adult that they feel comfortable speaking with.

Parents can help their teen strengthen their ability to lead an emotionally healthy lifestyle and best manage feelings of stress, anxiety, anger, hurt, disappointment and sadness by promoting healthy coping skills.

Read this companion blog post for 10 strategies to help build healthy coping skills

If you are worried about your teen, call your pediatrician. If you feel your teen is in immediate crisis, call 911 or the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.

Learn more about depression