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Real Talk: Start the conversation about depression

A professional's perspective

Start the conversation about depression

Is it depression or teenage “growing pains?  If you’re unsure if your teen is depressed or just “being a teenager,” consider how long the symptoms have been going on, how severe they are, and how different your teen is acting from his or her usual self. Hormones and stress can explain the occasional bout of teenage angst—but not continuous and unrelenting unhappiness, lethargy, or irritability.

Many social psychologists believe that today’s adolescents have more pressure and stresses than prior generations.  Teens today are bombarded with conflicting messages from media and parents and they may perceive limited outlets for the often unrealistic demands that result in their feeling pressured and frustrated.  The shift into adolescence requires the continuation of maintaining the simultaneous nurturing of their roots and wings.  This is especially true with teens who are struggling with depression.

Despite parent’s best efforts, there are many factors in an adolescent’s life that can create or contribute to clinical depression.  These factors can be biological, environmental and/or psychological.  Some people have an “imbalance” of certain brain chemicals called neurotransmitters that may cause depression.  Other factors that can contribute to depression in adolescents are a family history of depression and / or having experienced traumatic loss or change.  Adolescents possessing a negative, self-defeating manner of thinking about life events has also been noted as a predisposing factor.

It's time to talk
The first step in starting a conversation is to choose a good time. It’s really important to make space to be together without an agenda or pressure.  Conversation tends to flow best when it naturally occurs. Consider bringing up the topic of mental health when doing chores, cooking, hanging out, or in the car. Be aware of changes in your child’s willingness to engage with you.  If they are busy, or having a bad day you may want to wait until they are less preoccupied.

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 acknowledge these factors.

One way to explain depression to your teen is by comparing depression to another medical illness that your child is familiar with which may allow her to understand depression as an illness, not something she should be ashamed of.

If your child begins to talk to you try to validate his emotions, not his unhealthy behavior. For example, you could say, “It seems as though you’ve been really down lately. Is that true?” Make it clear that you want to try to understand what’s troubling him without trying to problem solve.

Ask him questions about his mood gently, without being emotional. Even parents with the best intentions often don’t realize that their concern can come across as critical rather than loving. Do not be judgmental or try to solve his problems, even if you disagree with his point of view.

How to communicate


  • Listen.  Really listening means stopping the voice in your own head and actively pay attention to person who is speaking.  This is hard for everyone, but practice helps!
  • Ask if they’ve thought about what they might need to get better. If they haven’t, offer to support to listen and talk it out with them. If they have, support them in following through with their needs.
  • Learn. If they bring you information, read it.  Learn as much as possible about your child’s condition and the realities of mental health disorders. The Mental Health America website is a good resource for information about symptoms and treatment options.
  • Make sure to keep things confidential, unless it is life threatening.  Respect this confidentiality if they have selected to speak with a third party.
  • Normalize.  Assure your child that having a mental health issue is common, and does not mean that they can’t get better.
  • Acknowledge your fear, but don’t let it rule your behaviors. As a parent it is important that we confront stigma or discrimination directly.
  • Recommend an impartial counselor, and assure your child that information will be confidential
  • Prepare to be an advocate.  Finding the right mental health treatment is like finding the right medical provider.  It takes time and effort to make sure you’re getting the best care you need.


  • Don’t minimize how they are feeling or tell them “you shouldn’t think that way.” It’s quite difficult to bring up this conversation, remember that they probably worried over it for some time before coming to you.
  • Don’t let your emotions rule your response – especially if you’re angry.  Negative words can set someone back for a long time and adds to stress and problems.  It’s also not uncommon for parents to feel guilt and blame themselves.  If your child has a brain-based illness, it is not your fault, but you can be part of the solution.
  • Don’t tell your child what they SHOULD do; instead, ask what they want you to help them with.
  • Don’t argue if you encounter resistance from your child.  Go back to listening, asking open ended questions and just repeating what they’ve said.
  • Don’t make excuses or blame others. 
  • Don’t compare your child to their siblings. 

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