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Real Talk: Start the conversation about depression and suicide

A professional's perspective

real talk, teens, how do i talk to my teens about depression, how do i talk to my teens about suicide

Current research has determined that the adolescent brain is changing dramatically during the teenage years. Brain regions responsible for strong emotions are especially sensitive during adolescence and an increase in the neurotransmitter dopamine adds to this powerful emotionality. The adolescent brain is chemically primed to remember and experience emotionality of events more strongly than ever before.

Memories and events that are coupled with excessive dopamine become more impactful. Things that feel good, feel better in adolescence and things that feel bad, feel worse.

Couple this with the intense feelings of often the first-time experience of emotionally laden events and you have “the perfect storm” for excessive moods swings.

Although these changes are not in and of themselves problematic, they may produce unsettling emotions and issues that create the usual “blues” or “moodiness” parents often encounter. Normal moodiness is usually due to the excitement of first-time events which can dissipate quickly. Consider the excitement of first love and the concomitant first heartbreak. The elevation of homeruns or touchdowns and the devastation of strikeouts and fumbles. Additionally, adolescents haven’t had the exposure to the dysfluencies in life long enough to develop adequate coping strategies to deal effectively to these inevitable life occurrences.

Today’s adolescents are bombarded with conflicting messages from media and parents as well as few outlets for the often-unrealistic demands that create pervasive frustration and pressure. 

Today’s adolescents, more than ever before, need adult guidance to help them understand these personal and interpersonal changes, messages and pressures they are experiencing at increasingly younger ages. 

READ MORE: Ways to treat adolescent depression

Despite parent’s best efforts, there are many factors in an adolescent’s life that can create or contribute to clinical depression.  Researchers have noted some internal and external factors that put some adolescents more at risk for depression than others.  Some people have an “imbalance” of certain brain chemicals called neurotransmitters that may cause depression.  Other factors that have been identified that can contribute to depression in adolescents are, a family history of depression or having experienced the death of a parent or a divorce.  Additionally, a negative, self-defeating way of thinking about life events has also been noted as a predisposing factor.

There are numerous symptoms of depression that parents need to be aware of:

-          Suicidal thoughts or self-abusive behaviors such as “accident proneness” or other self-injurious behavior – like “cutting”

-          Change in eating, sleeping or activity levels (too much or too little)

-          Lack of energy, enthusiasm or motivation to achieve in school, or to complete responsibilities at home

-          Changes in overall school performance without other possible explanations such as specific subject difficulty

-          Overreaction to any criticism or perceived failures - this overreaction may take the form of the adolescent being hostile and aggressive towards parents or teachers

-          The depressed adolescent may also be overwhelmed with guilt, have low self-esteem, feeling worthless or ever being able to do anything right or always feeling like a failure

-          A pervasive feeling of hopelessness – that they have nothing to “looking forward to”, that the future is empty - and this is often cited as critical, they may feel have no capacity in any way to change either the way they are feeling or the events that are precipitating or contributing to these feelings.

READ MORE: Kids and cutting...what you need to know

Start the conversation
It is critical to begin discussions with your adolescent about depression and suicide as soon as possible.  

The first step in starting a conversation is to choose a good time. It’s important to make time to be together without an agenda or pressure.  Conversation tends to flow best when it naturally occurs. Consider bringing up the topic of depression 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.

Be mindful of pushing too hard, it’s a difficult, but don’t give up trying. The main thing is to keep making yourself available for when they’re ready. Ask your child clarifying questions to get a better idea of what the situation is. As parents we often want to help them solve their problem before first knowing what the problem is.

Focus on listening, not lecturing.  Resist any urge to criticize or pass judgment once your teenager begins to talk. The important thing is that your child is communicating. You’ll do the most good by simply letting your teen know that you’re there for them, fully and unconditionally.

Acknowledge their feelings.  Don’t try to talk your teen out of depression, even if their feelings or concerns appear silly or irrational to you. Well-meaning attempts to explain why “things aren’t that bad” will just come across as if you don’t take their emotions seriously. Simply acknowledging the pain and sadness they are experiencing can go a long way in making them feel understood and supported.

Help them understand that things can change, and they won’t always feel the way they do today. Let them know this. It’s critical and can make a difference.

 Ask if they’ve thought about what they might need to get better.  If they have, support them in following through with their needs.

If your teen is suicidal, help them seek professional help right away through a counselor, doctor or hospital.

Dr. Paul Schwartz is a professor of psychology and education at Mount Saint Mary College.

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