How Can You Help a Teenager With Both Anxiety and Depression?
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How Can You Help a Teenager With Both Anxiety and Depression?

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When you think of anxiety and depression in teens, you may have a stereotypical image of constant worrying, tear-stained pillows and withdrawn behavior. However, reality can be much more complicated. Teens struggling with these mental health conditions can look like nothing is wrong in their world. They’re rocking it at school, hanging with friends and keeping up with all of their normal activities. Inside, it’s a whole different story — a whirlwind of worry, self-doubt and sadness. In fact, approximately 32% of teens experience anxiety and approximately 15% of teens have experienced a depressive episode. 

What do anxiety and depression look like in teens?

The teenage years are full of rapid and constant changes in physical, emotional and social development. These constant changes can make it hard to tell the difference between typical teen behavior and signs of mental health issues. It’s important to remember that teens can struggle with their mental health too, even the ones who seem like they have it all together. You want to keep an eye out for things sticking around for two weeks or longer. Anxiety and depression can often occur together.

Anxiety disorders affect approximately 32% of teens between 13 and 18 years old, with females more likely to be affected than males. Symptoms of anxiety in teens could look like:

  • Being concerned with perfection; this could be with school, sports or looks
  • Extreme irritability
  • Physical complaints of stomachaches or headaches
  • Risky or harmful behaviors
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Avoiding difficult or new situations
  • Sleep difficulties and fatigue
  • Excessive worry about social acceptance
  • Seeking reassurance
  • Crippling concerns about the future
  • Sensitivity to rejection or criticism
  • Less time with friends or social activities
  • Inability to tolerate stress or adversity

Depression rates in teens are estimated to have risen to now affect as many as 1 in 4 teens since the COVID-19 pandemic. Depression can happen at any time in life, but symptoms in teens may be different than in adults. Symptoms of depression in teens could look like:

  • Trouble getting along with people
  • Lack of interest in activities
  • Lack of effort in schoolwork
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Changes in sleep, either sleeping too much or not at all
  • Changes in appetite
  • Less time with friends
  • Risky or harmful behaviors
  • Thoughts or talk of self-harm or killing themselves

Changes in behavior can be difficult to tell apart from the typical ups and downs of being a teenager. If several symptoms of depression are present, you can talk with your teen and see what’s going on in their life. It’s important to stay connected with your teen and foster a positive mental health environment in your home. It can be beneficial to be open about your own struggles with mental health to help them learn to express their thoughts, emotions and struggles better and feel comfortable and confident to reach out for help when they need it.

Triggers of anxiety and depression in teens

Triggers for anxiety and depression in teens can include:

  • Academic pressure 
  • Bullying or social conflicts, in person and on social media
  • Family stress of divorce, financial struggles or conflicts in the home
  • Traumatic events like witnessing violence or experiencing abuse
  • Social comparison
  • Loss of a loved one or the end of a relationship
  • Hormonal fluctuations 
  • Chronic illness
  • Substance use

Steps parents can take to help a teenager struggling with anxiety and depression

Parents and other influential adults can play a crucial role in supporting teens struggling with anxiety and depression. Here are some ways they can help:

  • Pay attention to the kind of pressure you put on them. Teens can already be anxious about how well they’re doing or how things are going. They may be feeling pressure to have perfect grades, get into the perfect school or look a certain way. You can take the time to reassure them that you are proud of them and they’re doing a great job. Encourage them to do their best over pressuring them for perfection. 
  • Help them build strong connections. If you notice your teen withdrawing from their friends, you can check in with them and encourage them to stay connected. Anxiety and depression may make them feel like they are a burden and that everyone hates them. Reassure them nothing has changed — you are there to support them and their friends can help support them in times of struggle too. 
  • Normalize being open and honest about mental health issues and struggles. Take the time to be open and honest when you are struggling. By opening the floor to your own struggles, you can help normalize asking for help and expressing when you’re not OK.
  • Help them identify their feelings and what they can do to feel better.
  • Help them learn self-soothing techniques like relaxation breathing. Teens can be all about their technology. You can help them look into an app or videos that can help them learn and use self-soothing techniques. If you use a certain strategy, perhaps learned from your own counseling or therapy sessions, you can teach your teen or encourage them to look into their own strategies to help them cope.
  • Show them extra love and support, and let them know you want to listen and help. Anxiety and depression may make them want to turn in on themselves and internalize their struggles. Having open communication to show them that it’s OK not to be OK and that you are there to listen and support them can help. 
  • Help them get professional support.
  • Strike a balance between giving them space and staying engaged to help them feel supported and not ignored.
  • Make family changes to improve the well-being of everyone without singling them out. This could be spending time together as a family doing a fun activity, keeping nutritious foods in the home, or getting out and staying active together.  

What not to do

Helping a teenager dealing with anxiety and depression is crucial, but it’s also important to keep some things in mind not to do:

  • Don’t criticize and punish — Depression and anxiety aren’t a pass for misbehavior. However, it’s important to separate the effects of the conditions from actual wrongdoing. It’s essential to set clear and reasonable boundaries and rules. These boundaries and rules can provide structure and stability. A teen struggling with anxiety and depression can find the structure and stability reassuring. You should keep in mind your teen’s mental health needs and be reasonable and flexible if needed to better support your teen. 
  • Don’t take things personally — You want what’s best for your teen. Don’t take it personally if they don’t open up to you and turn to another trusted adult. Pushing them to open up to you may make them more likely to shut down. 
  • Don’t minimize or dismiss their feelings — Brushing off concerns can make a teen shut down and not turn to you for help in the future. While you may be tempted to say something like, “I went through the same thing at your age, and I turned out fine,” it may seem like a dismissal of your teen’s feelings and may make them think that their experiences aren’t valid. Take care not to use minimizing phrases like, “It’s not that big a deal” or “It’s not that bad,” or “You’re just going through a phase.” These statements can also make a teen feel like their feelings aren’t important or valid enough for concern. It’s also essential not to discount their emotions by saying things like, “Just get over it,” or “Stop being so sensitive.” These kinds of comments can make them feel like they should feel guilty for expressing their struggles. You also don’t want to place blame on things. Placing blame somewhere else can make them feel like they don’t have a legitimate mental health issue. Another important note is to avoid toxic positivity. It’s important to embrace the positives of life; however, constantly telling a teen to “look on the bright side” or “be grateful for what you have” can minimize their feelings and need for professional help. 

Treatment options for anxiety and depression in teens

Everyone’s journey with mental health struggles is different. There are a number of effective treatment options that can help teens struggling with anxiety and depression. Encourage your teen to consider or try a variety of strategies to help them find the best approach to help them alleviate their symptoms. If one method doesn’t fit your teen, encourage them not to give up and to try another approach. These treatment options and coping methods can include:

  • Healthy lifestyle changes — Making sure your teen gets enough exercise, eats a balanced diet and gets enough sleep can be an effective way to help improve their overall physical health. Physical activity releases endorphins, which are the body’s natural mood boosters. It can also help promote better sleep. This can help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression. 
  • Creative outlets Creative outlets like writing, drawing, painting, music or dance can give your teen an expressive and nonverbal way to channel their emotions. This can be beneficial if your teen is struggling to articulate their feelings verbally. Creative outlets can help teens process complex emotions, release pent-up stress, and look deeper into their inner thoughts and struggles. It can also give them a sense of control that anxiety can rip away. They are choosing what they create, how they express themselves and why they do it. 
  • Realistic goal setting — Goal setting can be a great tool for teens to adopt. It can help them break down large tasks into smaller, more manageable tasks. Goals can be a visual endpoint for teens to focus on achieving and provide them with a sense of purpose. It can also equip your teen with problem-solving skills as they can learn to adapt their strategies, look for alternative solutions and keep pushing for their goals when they hit an obstacle or setback. These skills are valuable to help manage anxiety and depression and can be used for the rest of their life.
  • Medication — Watching your teen struggle with anxiety and depression can be a challenging experience. Sometimes, an effective component for treatment can include medication to help manage your teen’s anxiety and depression. Certain medications are safe for teens to take under the management and guidance of a qualified health care provider. A thorough evaluation should be done and risks and benefits discussed before beginning medication. 
  • Therapy — Therapy can be a crucial component of helping a teenager struggling with anxiety and depression. The most effective type of therapy can depend on your teen’s individual needs, preferences and specific symptoms. Parents and teens should work together with a qualified mental health professional, like a licensed therapist or psychologist, to determine the best therapy approach and develop a personalized treatment plan. 

How therapy can help teens

Therapy can be an effective treatment to help guide teens out of the dark tunnel of anxiety and depression. Process-based therapy (PBT) is a therapeutic approach that integrates various evidence-based techniques, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), to provide personalized care for teens. PBT focuses on understanding the individual as a whole person and empowers teens to make positive changes in their lives. Several ways PBT can help teens include:

  • Understanding their feelings
  • Learning coping skills
  • Challenging negative thoughts
  • Building self-esteem
  • Improving communication skills
  • Setting realistic goals
  • Providing nonjudgmental support

Lightfully Teen can help your teen who is struggling with depression and anxiety

At Lightfully Teen, we understand the struggles teens and the caring adults in their lives can face when navigating anxiety and depression. Our licensed clinical therapists are here to provide nonjudgmental, compassionate and personalized treatment. We can shine a light on a teen’s inner strengths and help empower them on their journey of self-discovery and healing. With our unique clinical approach with PBT, we can help teens overcome their struggles with anxiety and depression to have a brighter and healthier mental health future. 

Change is possible. When they’re ready to take the first step, reach out to our Admissions Concierge Team. We’ll take the next steps together, toward the fullest, brightest version of your teen.

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