What to do when your teenager tells you, that they think they have depression or anxiety

‘I think I might be depressed’… they are of course words a parent hopes never to hear from their teenager; because parents pray for their teenager to be in perfect mental and physical health. Though the facts tell us that at around 20% of teenagers are experiencing a mental health problem, and that 45% of people will experience a mental health problem, within their lifetime.

Mental health problems are common, and they are treatable. Most people who get optimal treatment and seek help early, have good treatment outcomes.

It was no doubt awkward, uncomfortable, and probably very challenging for your teenager to share these feelings with you. And so for this reason and more, the words that follow your teenager’s brave admission, are so important. We know this can be a very difficult area for parents to navigate, as parents sometimes feel unsure of how to respond. That’s why this blog is dedicated to some general guidance on what to say, what to ask, and some of the unhelpful responses we want to be aware of.

Your initial reaction may be denial, worry, fear, frustration; or all of the above! These feelings are perfectly normal reactions for any parent to have. However, acting on these emotions, by saying or doing something unhelpful, can have a significant impact.

Following the below helpful steps will assist you to learn more about what your teenager is experiencing, and can help you to ensure that the right support and treatment is in place for your teenager.

Step 1

Acknowledge how difficult it probably was for your teenager to talk to you about this, and thank them for choosing to share this with you. Remember, the fact that your teenager told you something like this, says a lot about their faith in you as a parent. They are trusting that you will know how to best support them.

Step 2

Be the curious observer- ask your teenager to share more about these thoughts and feelings, in a gentle way. You can try using questions like ‘Is there more you would like to share with me?’ ‘Is there anything else about these feelings that you think I should know?’. Try adding ‘It’s helpful for me to learn more about what you’re going through.’

Step 3

When moving through the conversation, remember to be mindful or your reactions and language. It is common for teenagers to report that they have encountered an unhelpful reaction, when they first disclosed their mental health problem to a parent. Some of the unhelpful responses include statements like, ‘You don’t have anxiety/depression’, ‘It’s just a phase’, ‘You need to toughen up’ or ‘You don’t need to see a psychologist/counsellor’. The reasons that these statements are unhelpful is because they dismiss the problem and can invalidate your teenager’s feelings; and they effectively end the conversation there. In this situation, a teenager can be left feeling as though they have reached out for help, and been told ‘No’. The risk here is that each time they experience something like this, it reduces the likelihood that they will ask for help again.  Help seeking behaviour is very positive, and improves the chance that your teenager will make a good recovery from a mental health problem.

Step 4

Let your teenager know you are listening by following through with appropriate action- book them an appointment with the family doctor, and ask for a mental health care plan. Where available, your teenager can also book in to see the doctor that works on site at school. If your teenager is able to access psychology services early, there is a better chance of a good treatment outcome. Responsiveness and prevention is the most effective approach to care for your teenager’s mental health and overall wellbeing.

Step 5

Take care of yourself! This may be a challenging conversation for a parent to have. Acknowledge this in yourself, and take a moment to reflect on your own emotions that have shown up during this conversation.

For further helpful information, check out our Resources tab.

Blog by Rebecca Thomas (Business and Relationships Manager, Shine Bright Psychology). To read more about Rebecca, click here.