It’s difficult enough talking to a teenager – especially if the teenager is yours. You never know what to expect: silence, a grunt, a stare of contempt, or, if it’s a day for miracles, a responsive conversation.
What is usually missing in their perception of their life is a broader perspective on their situation. What is usually missing is an awareness that ups and downs of life are normal and to be expected. What is usually most missing is why this is happening to them and why now.
Talking to a depressed teen is almost kama-kazi, akin to tiptoeing through a mine field.
First of all, how does one differentiate a depressed teen from a teenager simply going through ordinary teen moodiness? It takes a good eye, and you must know your teenager well enough to know what is ordinary for him or her.
If you know you teen’s typical mood swings then you will be able to discern if:
- her irritability is worse, even explosive
- he is isolating himself
- she’s mentioning friends less often than usual
- he doesn’t enjoy doing the things he normally loves
- she has no interest in anything
- his appetite has changed noticeably
If you notice any of these things, then it’s time to talk.
Since helping is just another word for learning, your task is to get them thinking instead of feeling…to get them learning instead of depressing. To open the door requires you to offer them an alternative view of not just their situation but of life in general. You task is to link them to nature. Your task is to link them to laws of nature.
They will readily agree their life follows the law of gravity…that’s why they use stairs. But they will be less likely to see how the law of symmetry applies to them. Yet depression is just a lopsided view of something. So when you point out beauty, theirs and others, are examples of symmetry, …like their eyebrows, eyes, shoulders, knees, etc. are matched sets of symmetry, they may start to listen.
So do they notice where else this law of symmetry applies in their life? How about some other examples like the weather, the stock market and even relationships with others and ourselves. So being discouraged is normal and to be expected by everyone in their life.
In fact, it is one of nature’s important learning tools because it helps us define what we want for ourselves. Since it enables us to define who we are and where we want to go, depressing is actually a very healthy thing to do. It buys us thinking time; it draws support to us, prevents hostility and enables us to set new goals. So under every depressed person is an unfulfilled WANT! And this is a great place to start when they are ready to talk.
Opening the Door to Conversation
- Let her know you’re aware something is wrong……”I can’t help noticing something’s bothering you. Do you want to talk about it?” If she doesn’t want to talk, let her know you’re there to listen when she does.
- Gently persist until there’s a breakthrough. Share – briefly – an experience of your own hard times.
- To help identify your teen’s feelings, write down some descriptive words, such as: ashamed, embarrassed, disrespected, labeled, powerless, alone, brushed off, lonely, misunderstood, unknown, invisible, accused, misled, disapproved of, over-protected, terrified, insecure, scared, suspicious. Then say something like, “This may seem silly, but it would help me understand better what’s going on if you would circle the words that describe how you’re feeling – or maybe add your own.” Hopefully, this will open a dialog.
- Once she or he begins to talk, do not judge or criticize anything they say – or appear shocked or disappointed – no matter what comes out. Reassure them that whatever it is can be worked through and you’re there for them, no matter what.
- This is NOT the time to start giving advice or come up with a plan for self-improvement. Maybe you can talk about occasions when you, too, have felt loneliness, discouragement and confusion.
Once the Door is Open
What NOT to say:
- There’s always someone worse off than you are.
- No one ever said that life was fair.
- It’s your own fault. You’re always so negative.
- Believe me, I know how you feel. I was depressed once for several days.
- Haven’t you grown tired of all this “me, me, me” stuff yet?
- It’s all in your mind.
- I thought you were stronger than that.
- Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.
Someone who is depressed loses perspective. Pointing out that they are feeling sorry for themselves will not help. Instead here are some phrases that will offer reassurance, sympathy and kindness.
What to Say:
- I love you for who you are, and I am not going to leave you.
- We are a team. I am on your side. (This is an especially helpful phrase when your child insinuates that you are ruining their life, or some other hurtful comment.)
- You are important to me.
- I can’t imagine how hard it is for you, but I want to help in any way I can.
- You’re not alone in this. I am always here for you.
- When all this is over, I’ll still be here and so will you.
- You are a sensitive person who cares for others. (Many people suffering with depression no longer recognize their positive attributes, so it’s helpful to point them out.)
- My best guess, from my life experiences, is you want something you don’t know how to get yet…is that fair to say?
- If that is so I can show you a way to move towards getting at least some of what you want.
- Would you like to learn how to do that right now?
- I am going to guide you through a 5 step process. I call it a “Walk in the Park” because that is how easy it is to answer the 5 questions involved….then just follow the process.
Helping your teen through his or her depression does not mean being with them 24/7. Let them know you are committed to helping them, but that you also need time to do errands and recharge your own batteries, in order to be able to help them better. Build our own support network. Arrange for others to spend time with your child – without smothering them.
“Depression is a dark room where we are developing the next chapter of our lives before living it” ~~Gwyneth Lewis