How To Support Your Teenager with a Mental Health Diagnosis

My oldest daughter began suffering from depression early in her teenage years.   Through a series of episodes we realized we were dealing with more than simply some episodes of premenstrual syndrome, or even episodes of premenstrual dysmorphic disorder. We knew she was being bullied at school, but she refused to name the perpetrators. We knew there were problems, but we couldn’t put a name to them, not yet.

At first, we took her to a psychologist, who diagnosed her with oppositional disorder and a nascent personality disorder, saying she was “charming” upon first impressions but ultimately was “manipulative” to get her needs met. We took her to a counselor for regular therapy for several months with no discernable headway—the counselor finally recommended we terminate therapy because she didn’t see where it was doing our daughter much good.

A few years later, we discovered she had been sexting with other people over Twitter, through direct messages. This time we took her to another psychologist recommended by my counselor, who did not make a diagnosis but talked with my daughter for several months before recommending we see a psychiatrist for medical management for depression.

At the psychiatrist’s, our daughter seemed to finally feel safe about opening up about her problems, and she began taking Welbutrin. We saw the psychiatrist at first once every month, then every three months, and gradually stretched it to every six months. Our daughter’s behavior at home improved—she could come out of her room to visit with us now where she would have holed up alone before we learned she couldn’t be trusted with her phone alone.

Important points to remember managing a depressed teenager:

Respect their boundaries. Don’t make them tell you everything going on in their lives and don’t overschedule or overcommit your child just so they can’t have freedom at times when it is appropriate.

But don’t be afraid to intervene. One of my daughter’s behaviors was reported to her Girl Scout leader, who then came to us.   Be ready to step up to help your child when confronted with extreme measures they can go to in order to express their sadness or dissatisfaction with life.

Engage professionals. The youth minister at your church or other faith community may not be equipped to handle severely depressed youth—but professionals can.

But listen to your child’s instincts about their therapist. No matter how well regarded a professional might be, if your child isn’t comfortable sharing with them, no amount of visits will help.

Stay engaged with your children. The temptation may be to let them be loners in the family if they choose. If that has always been their nature, it may be all right. But if it’s a sudden withdrawal from everyone, keep them engaged with family mealtimes, vacations, excursions, and other activities to keep up the family ties.

Monitor their social media activity. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and TikTok are important channels of communication between teens, but adults also use those apps to stalk vulnerable kids who spend too much time alone on social media. Make it a condition of use by children that they have to friend or follow you where you can see what they are up to.

Be supportive in any way you can. Pay for the therapy, medications, and doctor visits without recriminations. Listen to you child and see what else needs to be done, whether it is intervention at school or just being a listening ear when they arrive home.

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