Coping with Depression and Anxiety
Everyone feels sad or stressed sometimes. Having these feelings is a part of life and doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a problem. How do we know when things are getting more serious and may need therapeutic intervention?
As children grow into teenagers, they become increasingly socially aware and concerned about what others think about them. Many teens may put on a “happy face” to try to fit in or in order not to burden others, while on the inside they are experiencing a lot of emotional pain. Teens may be guarded or reluctant to talk about their sad feelings because they don’t want others to see their vulnerability or think that is something wrong with them. Parents may be surprised to learn their teen is struggling.
Reaching out and getting emotional support is one of the most important things for someone who is anxious or depressed. Parents, when your teen is calm (not in crisis), ask him/her what would help him/her be more authentic and open about their thoughts and feelings? Ask what you can do that would feel supportive to him/her. Some things your teen asks for may not be realistic or healthy for them (e.g., missing large amounts of school or receiving unearned privileges). However, try to focus on what you can honor from your teen’s requests.
Tips for Parents
- Teens often don’t like face to face conversations about stressful topics. It can be intimidating. Try taking them out for ice-cream, a car ride, or play basketball, and then ask them what’s going on
- Listen nonjudgmentally and empathetically
- Focus on really understanding your teen’s experience of the problem
- Don’t try to downplay your teen’s distress even if it seems like something you wouldn’t stress about
- Be cautious about sharing too much about your own experiences from your youth, this is can be frustrating to teens. Their experience may not be your experience. While you may be able to relate, you may not necessarily know exactly how they feel and it can be invalidating if you say you understand when they don’t think you do. Take the time to hear them out. They just want to know you are trying.
- Wait to talk about solutions to problems until the teen looks comforted and understood
- When you talk about solutions, ask them for their ideas about what they could do vs. giving advice.
- Avoid lecturing (this will definitely turn your teen off to opening up to you). If you have a few suggestions, ask if they would like to hear them and keep it brief.
- If you need to set some limitations/boundaries due to behavioral concerns, make sure that you empathize with the reasons underlying your teen’s behavior first. It doesn’t mean you agree with their choice of behavior, but you can show you understand it’s hard to experience these feelings and challenges.
Talk with your teen about what needs to happen to keep him/her safe and healthy. Stay firm on limits you feel are essential but have some flexibility in areas so you can compromise, or meet “in the middle,” on some of the details where possible.
- If your teen is too emotional to talk, give him/her some space and suggest that you talk at a later point (suggest a time). Make sure your teen will be safe while you give them space.
- Make one-on-one time with your teen a regular thing. Good relationships are built on a lot of positive moments
Sadness vs. Depression
Stress vs. Anxiety
|Negative Stress (Anxiety)
Mood Uplifting Activities
Everyone is a little different when it comes to what can help them feel better when down or stressed. In such times, we need to be even more conscientious to practice good self-care and mood uplifting activities. It can be helpful to think of coping strategies in several different areas.
Use a pen and paper to write down some things in the following areas that you can do to lift your mood (physical, mental, social, spiritual). This can be a helpful activity to encourage your teen to do as well.
- Physical (self-care, enjoyable activities, exercise):
- Mental (perspectives, affirmations, self-talk):
- Social (seeking support, avoiding isolation):
- Spiritual (connecting with nature, faith, or higher power):
There is an irony in life that the more we try NOT to feel what we are feeling, the more likely our feelings will get bigger and overwhelm us. Allowing ourselves to “sit with” and experience our emotions with self-compassion and non-judgement is an important part of healthy emotional regulation. When we can validate our own emotions and not be terrified to have a little temporary discomfort, the feelings will often pass quicker than if we keep trying to avoid them. Usually, avoidance ends up coming out in self-medicating or unhealthy impulsive behaviors (e.g., unsafe or risky behaviors, eating problems, oversleeping, excessive video-gaming, substance use, etc.). Finding ways to express what we are feeling (e.g., art, music, writing/journaling, talking) can be very therapeutic. Encourage your teen to find ways to self-express. If they share their creative works with you, try to be curious and non-critical. Any themes related to suicidal/self-harming or unsafe behaviors should be referred to a therapist.
Think about skills or support that could help empower your teen, create a positive outlet, and/or reduce the negative impact of life-stressors (e.g., social skills group, therapy, grief group, school clubs, karate classes, music lessons, teen self-help books, etc.). Discuss with your teen what s/he thinks might be helpful. The more your teen feels his/her perspective is considered in this process, the more empowered s/he will feel and the more likely you will get “buy in” from your teen to participate.
Mindfulness is an Eastern philosophy and practice that involves self-compassion, internal and external awareness, and focusing on your immediate senses to help immerse you into the present instead of focusing on past emotional wounds (depression) or worrying about the future (anxiety). Mindfulness can be very relaxing and help you move into a more calm/centered place. If you regularly practice mindfulness, you will be able to manage your mood and make wise choices instead of being emotionally reactive and impulsive.
Mindfulness Exercise: Think of a moderately upsetting problem you have. Rate the problem on a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high) in terms of how bad this problem is (try to choose a problem between 5 and 8). Write down your thoughts and feelings about this problem, and the state of your thoughts at the beginning of the exercise. Practice 10 to 15 minutes of mindful activities. Afterwards, write down your thoughts and feelings about the problem (and your mental state) and re-rate the severity of the problem using the 1 to 10 scale. Notice any differences from before and after doing the mindfulness activities.
Check out this article on Eight Awesome Meditation and Mindfulness Websites/Apps:
When to Seek Therapy
You don’t need to wait until your teen is severely depressed or anxious to seek therapy. In fact, going to counseling is especially useful as a preventative tool in the mild to moderate stages of depression/anxiety. Remember that family therapy can be as helpful as individual therapy since many factors contributing to depression/anxiety are relational. If your child expresses any kind of suicidal or self-harming tendencies, is having ongoing significant mood swings with anger or emotional overwhelm/panic attacks, engaging in substance use, disordered eating patterns (food restriction/binge-eating/purging), or missing a lot of school, these are strong signs that therapy may be needed.
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Amber Willis, PhD, LMFT, Clinical Director
James Mason Centers for Recovery