Your teen has started to sleep more. Their appetite has disappeared. They seem more irritable and lethargic than usual. The things that used to bring them joy suddenly do not. Depression is hard to understand if you have not personally experienced it yourself. Not to mention, depression in children and teens shows up differently than it does in adults. Being supportive in your teen’s time of need can be difficult, especially if you don’t know what to say. Does your positive “advice” seem to have the opposite effect, and you’re not sure why? In this article, we list 10 things you should avoid saying to your depressed teen and why those things may have a harmful impact on them
10 things you shouldn’t say to your depressed teen
1. Cheer up
If they could, they would. Depression is not a mood, but a disorder. Therefore, telling your depressed teen to “cheer up” is basically the equivalent of telling them to make their mental illness go away. Just the way it is insensitive to tell someone with cancer to smile and forget about their illness…so it is with depression. Be supportive of your teenager — acknowledge and sympathize with their experience, even if you don’t quite understand it.
2. It could be worse
While in some situations, yes, it technically could be worse… that’s not the point. Your teen is experiencing these difficult emotions for the first time. They could be feeling some of the worst things they’ve ever personally come to know. You’re not putting things into perspective for them when you tell them things could be worse. Logically, they can wrap their head around that concept. Understanding the complex emotions of depression, however, is not as simple for a teen to comprehend.
3. It’s all in your head
I mean, sure. It is a mental illness, after all. However, telling that to a kid who is feeling physically exhausted, nauseated, and fatigued doesn’t equate in the same way. Depression has multiple physical symptoms, some of which you wouldn’t even naturally associate with a mental illness. Chest pains, aches and pains in the muscles, migraines, digestive issues, you name it. Your teen might not be able to understand the correlation between those symptoms and their depression yet. Telling them it’s all in their head can be extremely invalidating to them, especially why they can’t quite figure out where their physical symptoms are coming from.
4. Just let it go
Another case of “if they could, they would.” Depression affects every area of a teen’s life — school, friends, and home life, to a name a few. Telling them to simply let it go, downplays the severity of what they are experiencing. Most depressed teens already feel extremely misunderstood — this “token of wisdom” perpetuates the stigma. You can’t just let go of a broken leg; you can’t just let depression go.
5. It’s not that bad
It is that bad. Your teen is learning about the world and their emotions for the very first time. Depression really is that bad. Especially if it’s severely impacting their emotional health, physical wellbeing, and executive functioning. How much worse does it have to be before you decide your teen needs help? Take their word for it, don’t make them prove it to you.
6. But you don’t look sad
Depression doesn’t have a specific look to it. Everyone deals with depression differently and some people are much, much better at hiding it. Teenagers, especially with those invalidating parents, become very good at masking their emotions. When they are met with constant disapproval, they will inevitably end up hiding what they truly feel like on the inside in order to avoid conflict.
7. Everyone has bad days
This is true, but depression makes every day a bad day. The persistent pattern of bad days starts to feel like a hole your teen can’t seem to crawl out of. A consistent string of bad days bring deep feelings of despair, misery, and loneliness. The longer it persists, the harder it is to crawl out of, especially when your teen’s responsibilities are suffering because of it.
8. You’re just being dramatic
Depression comes with a lot of shame and embarrassment. I promise you that your teen does not want a spotlight to showcase those emotions. They are learning how to express these complex feelings for the first time, and probably feeling pretty confused. Even if they are doing it for attention, what’s wrong with that? Perhaps, this is their way of communicating that they want help or support. Don’t mistake that for being dramatic.
9. Therapy/medication is for crazy people
This is one of the most damaging things you could say to a child. Not to mention, this is one of the oldest, most stigmatized beliefs to have ever been said about any mental illness. If you would take pain-relieving medication and attend physical therapy sessions for a sports injury, why wouldn’t you take anti-depressants and attend therapy for depression? Why is the road to recovery need to be further stigmatized? Give your child someone they can talk to, a professional who can teach them evidence-based techniques to cope with their emotions.
10. You need to get out more
While getting outside into the sunshine may actually be helpful, forcing your depressed teen out of their comfort zone does more harm than good. When your teen is depressed, it becomes especially difficult to bring themselves to do simple tasks. That includes taking a walk or sitting in the sun. Instead of telling them they need to get out more, position the offer as such: “Would you like to take a walk with me?” or “Would you like to sit outside with me?” Offer them a choice instead of a demand.
Depression is extremely misunderstood, especially in teenagers. Adults tends to hide their depressive episodes, whereas many teenagers “act out” or become cranky and reactive. This is their way of processing these complex emotions for the first time. While it may be difficult to set aside your personal feelings to make space for your son or daughter to process theirs, it is important to meet them halfway. Approach them with understanding, calmness, and empathy — even if you don’t get it.
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