How to help prevent your child dealing with depression

Half of Americans will deal with a mental health disorder

Half of Americans will meet the criteria for a DSM-IV disorder (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) in their life. 50% of them start by age 14 and 75% by age 24 (Kessler RC & al, 2005)

Depressive disorder and social anxiety disorder are chronic disorders that follow these rules.

There is good news and bad news:

  • Good news: Parents have the power, sometimes, to help prevent their teen’s depression and social anxiety disorder.
  • Bad news: It is hard to not feel guilty when you know this and your kid is dealing with depression or social anxiety.

I want to be very clear: It is very likely not your fault if your teen has depressive disorder or social anxiety. In some cases, your relationship and behavior with them can help prevent them, but it is not a magical wand, and even if you do everything you are “advised to do”, it may not have a significant effect. Keep in mind that who your child is and what they feel is not all due to you, even very little in the majority of cases. For most of you, you’ve done the best you thought you could do and you have given a lot to your child. Perfection does not exist. Perfect parenthood either. Life is tougher for some than for others.

If you are ready to accept that it is not your fault, then you can read the rest of this blog post. If you know that you will feel guilty no matter what, please stop reading. I mean it.

So,

A study conducted in 2016 showed that a high level of support from parents moderates the depressive symptoms in teenagers. In this study, for these specific symptoms, they even found that only parents’ support can moderate the symptoms but not peer support (The referred symptoms are daily cortisol output, a measure of HPA activity, and C-reactive protein which are not all of depressive disorder symptoms).

Another study conducted in 2015 concluded that “Increases in positive parent–child relationships contribute to declines in adolescent risk taking”, risk taking being often associated with depression.

Despite the will and instinct to get out of their parents’ nest and the very strong influence of their peers, the relationship with family members remains a key source of influence and guidance. This could be a surprise to most of us, since we know adolescence is the time when one needs to increase its autonomy, and when friends and peers become the main influence in life. The “trick” is to bring your insight in a way teens will listen and hear.

Easy to say but not to do.

Here are the big questions: how do you highly support your teen without being overbearing? How do you support them and at the same time, let them take some risks and grow up?

Here are 8 ways to help prevent depression and social anxiety in adolescence:

  1. Stay positive and believe in your child
     If you don’t believe in them, if you are anxious, they will feel it. They are very sensitive, almost as if they have “antennas”. If they perceive you as stressed and anxious, they will internalize their difficulties. If you have trouble dealing with your own emotions, I strongly suggest that you get help, it will benefit you and your family.
  2. Help them feel valued and competent. 
     Telling them that they are great is not enough for them to believe it. They need to discover it by themselves. They need to struggle, fail, work hard, and get better and better. This implies that they learn to not take failure as an end. Your role as an adult is to encourage them and to help create an environment that makes it possible. For example, don’t push a kid to be good in basket-ball if they don’t show talent for it or that they don’t like. Instead, gently reorient them in something they are better at. This feeling of value builds incrementally: the more they succeed, the more they feel self-confident and the more they will engage in trying new things and work harder and harder to master them.
  3. Coach their emotions
     1- Name and validate what they feel: All feelings are okay, even the worst ones.
     2- Correct the bad behavior, if you can, by setting limits so that they learn how to behave appropriately when facing strong and negative emotions.
     3- Lead them to find a good way to deal with the issue if it happens again. Be careful here, you are not the one who must solve the problem. Your teen has to come up with the “solution”, your role is to help them by discussing and asking questions .
     
     A good reference book about emotional coaching: “Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child The Heart of Parenting” By Ph.D. John Gottman and Joan Declaire
  4. Encourage positive friendships and romantic relationships
     
    Do not discount them, ever: Adolescence is the period when close friends and romantic friends surpass parents for social support. They are critical for self-awareness and well-being. Resist feeling as if you don’t count anymore, it is not true, as we saw above (I know, teens are pretty good at making you feel that way). Teens who have a positive peer relationship reported less depressive or anxiety related symptoms. 
     It has long been recognized that teens’ peer relations and close friendships contribute highly to their psychosocial functioning (Brown et al., 1986, La Greca et al., 2001; Prinstein & La Greca, 1998). Encouraging your teens to connect with peer social networks that can bring the feeling of being valued, heard and understood is very important. This is one of the pillars of Give Us The Floor: Having a safe supportive social group of peers where teens can express themselves, feel valued by supporting others (Read “Teenagers: The Incredible Outcomes Of Helping Others”) and create media-based pieces that shows them, their peers, and the world that they are worthwhile.
     It also has been shown that best friends are an important protective mechanism and promote psychological resilience.
  5. Encourage them to have a purpose in life
    Having identified a purpose in life is associated with greater life satisfaction in adolescence, emerging adulthood, and adulthood, but searching for a purpose is associated with greater life satisfaction only for adolescents and emerging adults. Hence the importance for teens to find a purpose in life, or search for one. This is another pillar of Give Us The Floor: first leading teens to feel better about themselves, about belonging to a peer group, then they can open up and express themselves. This process help teens find a purpose, or at least be on the path to look for one (Without, in most cases, being aware of it).
  6. Teach your child to be grateful
     How? Be grateful yourself and set the example. Grateful teens (ages 14–19) are more satisfied with their lives, help their community, are more engaged in their schoolwork and hobbies, have higher grades, and are less envious, depressed, and materialistic.
  7. Teach them to have a quality diet.
    Who would have believed that what you eat has an impact on your psychological well-being? Well it does, even during adulthood. An Australian study suggests that both low intakes of nutrient-poor foods and/or high intakes of high-energy nutrient-poor foods are related to an increase in the risk of symptomatic depression. It makes sense if you think about it: bringing the nutrients that your body needs is critical for your physical health, it also gives more strength and resilience to your brain.
     Like for being grateful, your best chance is to set the example and offer them a balanced diet beginning in their early childhood in order for them to like this type of food (If you raise a child with pizza, fries, etc, don’t expect them to like fish, vegetables and fruits when they grow up).
  8. Last, do everything you can to ensure they have enough hours of sleep
     It cannot be repeated enough will never repeat it enough: Sleep is critical. Reduced quantity of sleep in adolescents increases risk for major depression, which in turn increases the risk for decreased sleep. It is a vicious circle that is hard to break. Studies indicate that too many adolescents do not obtain adequate nocturnal sleep and a quarter of them report sleeping 6 hours or less per night when 9 hours are recommended.

Now, good luck! Again, easy to give advice but much more difficult to implement. I want to emphasize what I said in the introduction, sometimes, there is no way for you to avoid social anxiety or depression. Don’t take this on your shoulders, it is not your fault and it is not in your power to change it. Even if you had known and applied this advice, it may have no effect. No matter what you’ve done, or have not done, you can still help. Don’t be afraid to seek help, this is their and your best chance.