Being a teenager can be a complex time, with competing demands from their social circle, school and family, all while developing their identity. In addition, teenagers’ brains haven’t yet fully matured meaning they are still developing their skills in emotional regulation, self-control and executive functioning.

This all means that teenagers, just like adults, can experience low mood or depression. As a parent the signs you can be on the lookout for include:

  • Persistent sadness or low mood
  • No longer being interested in the things they used to enjoy
  • Appearing tired or fatigued all the time
  • Being irritable, grumpy or indecisive
  • Changes to their sleeping patterns: sleeping more or struggling to get to sleep
  • Changes to their eating patterns
  • Appearing less confident
  • Seeming unable to relax
  • Talking about feeling worthless
  • Talking about self-harm, or suicide, or using self-harm behaviours or attempting suicide

Remember that some of these symptoms are very common in teenagers and do not mean that your child is experiencing low mood. If you have any concerns, try to ask them how they are feeling and then seek professional advice and support if necessary.

Supporting teenagers who are feeling low in mood

Supporting a teenager who is feeling low in mood can be really difficult and cause your own levels of stress or anxiety to increase. The following section describes some strategies that lots of families find helpful. Professionals at Sunshine Counseling can support you in implementing these strategies.

Encourage and support a healthy lifestyle

There is evidence that an active, healthy lifestyle which involves outdoor activities can counteract experiences of low mood. Try to get the whole family outdoors and engaging in a fun activity: ball games, a trip to the beach or a bike ride through the forest. In addition, try to help your teen to get 9-10 hours’ sleep per night, eat a healthy balanced diet and exercise frequently. Technology can hinder sleep so set a good example and avoid using technology yourself for an hour or two before bed. Some families find that plugging all electronics on charge in a different room can help with this. 

Consider the potential causes of the low mood

Changes in a person’s mood are caused by changes in their environment or experience. Consider what has changed for your teen. Are they being bullied? Preparing for exams? Have they lost a friend? Or started puberty? Consider the potential causes yourself and then try to discuss them with your teen. Ensure you use a curious approach to explore their difficulties.

Support them to attend clubs or other activities that increase self-esteem and self-worth

Self-esteem and self-worth are great protectors against low mood. Most people feel an increase in self-esteem and self-worth when they engage in activities that they enjoy, make them feel part of something and give them structure or purpose. Support your teen to attend whatever groups or clubs that fulfil this need for them or encourage them to try new activities if they haven’t yet found what they enjoy.

Listen and validate

The most important thing you can do to support your teen if they are feeling low in mood if simply to listen. This may sound easy, however, getting it right can be difficult. Listening should not be about problem solving (for example, “have you tried…? or “why don’t you…?”, nor should it minimize the teenager’s experience (for example, “I know it sounds hard now but I’m sure you’ll forget about this soon”). Instead, listen attentively and actively to their experience, then reflect the situation back to them and express empathy. For example, “I hear that you are feeling really sad now and feel as though you have no energy to take part in your clubs. That must be really difficult and maybe frustrating too.”

If your teenager is struggling to tell you about their difficulties, then try not to take it personally. Try again within a couple of days, perhaps when you are engaging in a different activity. Many families and professionals find that talking while in the car can be helpful as you would not be directly facing your teen. Finally, if your child doesn’t feel able to talk to you about their difficulties then arrange support at school, within the family or with a professional.

Managing self-harm

Knowing that your teenager is self-harming can be a difficult and traumatic experience and you may feel a range of emotions including: fear, disgust, guilt, anger, hopelessness, sadness or complete confusion. The reason for self-harm is different for every person, however, common reasons include:

  • Managing emotions: releasing emotional pain, anxiety or stress
  • Escaping emotions: focusing on self-harm can distract some people from their painful feelings
  • To punish themselves for perceived mistakes or flaws
  • To feel in control if their life feels out of control

To support your teenager if they are self-harming:

  • Don’t punish them for self-harming and instead express your love, understanding and support
  • Be an active listener, as described above
  • Don’t try to immediately solve the problem
  • Understand that your child is likely to be using self-harm as a coping strategy and will be unable to stop immediately – don’t enter a battle with them
  • Keep them safe – remove any knifes or other objects from the house
  • Explore alternatives to self-harm including talking problems through and accessing therapy to develop emotional regulation skills
  • Ask your child if they have ever had thoughts of suicide. If they have then seek professional help

Look after yourself and siblings

Finally, throughout all this, try to ensure that you, your family and your other children are supported. Look after your own self-care needs and seek professional support when needed. Explain what you can to your other children and ensure they are also supported, potentially by their schools or professional services.

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