When talking with your teen about depression, you will want to consider where she is developmentally and what is currently important to her.
An older child or adolescent naturally begins to pull away from her family and identify with her peers. She is striving to find her identity and working to establish independence from her parents. So, when having a conversation about depression, you will want to address these factors.
Explaining Depression to Your Teen
Comparing depression to another medical illness that your child is familiar with may allow her to understand depression as an illness, her symptoms, the importance of treatment, and avoid feeling abnormal. Older children and adolescents are especially sensitive to feeling different or out of place.
- For Example: "Depression is a special kind of illness called a mental illness. It is similar to other illnesses like the flu in the way that it can make you feel tired or have a headache. Depression also affects your mood and feelings. It can make you feel sad, lonely, frustrated, angry, or scared. What questions do you have about depression?"
Talking About Treatment With Your Teen
Your teenager is more likely to comply with treatment if she understands what it is for, knows what to expect, and can have a say in it. Of course, it is not always practical to allow your child to plan her own treatment, but if you can allow her to even make a small decision (like setting up her next appointment), it may make a big difference in allowing her to feel in control.
- For Example: "You will need to take medicine every day and go to therapy once a week so you feel better. In therapy, you will talk to Dr. Smith privately about your feelings and activities, and ask questions. At first, you may have some side effects from the medicine, like feeling extra tired or dizzy, but it should go away soon. That is why you will see the doctor once a month. He will ask about how the medicine is making you feel and will make sure that it is helping you. What do you think of this treatment plan so far?"
Encouraging Supportive Relationships
Even though older children identify more with their peers, depression can cause a child to withdraw from everyone. Having supportive relationships is important for everyone, but it may be especially important for depressed children who already feel lonely or isolated. Having just one friend or supportive adult to talk to can provide a huge benefit to your child. Declare your support and availability to your child, and encourage her to connect or re-connect with friends and share her feelings.
- For Example: "I am always here to talk to you about anything. You may want to think about talking to some of your friends about your feelings too. Having supportive and encouraging people to lean on is important. Talking about your feelings can make a difficult time a little bit easier. Which of your friends do you think you might be able to talk to?"
Older children may be familiar with the social stigma of mental illness or have heard others say derogatory things about the mentally ill. You may want to address this with your child so that she does not feel like she has to hide or be ashamed of her depression diagnosis.
- For Example: "You may have heard people say hurtful or inaccurate things about people with mental illness or depression. Occasionally, when people don't know about things, they will say something hurtful or make incorrect judgments. You should not feel embarrassed or like you have to hide it, but you should make the decision to tell others about depression if and when you want to."
It is mistakenly thought that talking about suicide may plant ideas in a child. In fact, addressing the topic can help her to know what to do if she has suicidal thoughts or behaviors.
Remember, though, it is important that you seek urgent medical care if your child is having suicidal thoughts or behaviors.
- For Example: "If you are ever feeling like you want to hurt yourself or like you don't want to live, please tell me, or call your doctor immediately. Sometimes feelings can be overwhelming, and you feel like it might never get better. Suicide is permanent and feelings are not. We can help you to work through your feelings. Are you currently having any feelings of wanting to hurt yourself?"
It is hard not to worry about saying the "right" thing to your child about her depression -- but just letting her know that you love and support her speaks volumes.
Communicating With Your Child. American Academy of Pediatrics. Accessed: 10/05/2010 http://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/family-dynamics/communication-discipline/pages/Communicating-with-Your-Child.aspx
Feelings Need Check Ups Too. American Academy of Pediatrics. Accessed: June 15, 2010.
Willansky-Traynor, P. Manassis, K., Monga, S. et al. "Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Depressed Youth: Predictors of Attendance in a Pilot Study." Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry May 2, 2010, 19.
Stress in America: Talking With Your Children About Stress. American Psychological Association: Accessed: 10/04/2010. http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress-talking.pdf
Suicide Prevention: Youth Suicide. Centers for Disease Control. Accessed: August 14, 2010. http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pub/youth_suicide.html