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What Not To Say To A Depressed Teenager (And What To Say Instead)

| What Not To Say To Teenagers With Depression | What To Say To A Depressed Teen |

Mental health problems among teenagers are a significant concern. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in seven 10-19-year-olds worldwide suffers from a mental disorder, adolescent depression being one of the most prevalent​1​.

Adolescence is a period of unique growth and development. Teenagers are more vulnerable to mental health problems when they experience physical, emotional, and social changes.

From 2000 to 2017, suicide rates among 15 to 19-year-olds increased significantly in the United States, with the highest point in 2017​2​.

Although the increase could result from more accurate reporting, depression-related suicide is still among the leading causes of death in teenagers.

Parents of teens with depression may be concerned and scared. When it comes to their teens, they feel like they’re walking on eggshells and don’t know what to do or say to them.

In their desperate attempts to comfort their teens, parents may end up saying things that make their teens’ depression worse rather than better.

depressed teenage boy sits on floor holding a cellphone

What Not To Say To Teenagers With Depression

Dismiss The Condition

  • “Just pick yourself up.”
  • “You can choose to be happy.”
  • “Try to think positive.”
  • “Just don’t think about it.”
  • “We all have stress. Just deal with it like everyone else.”

What you try to do:

You may think that it’ll eventually disappear if your teen believes it’s not there.

Why it’s bad:

Unfortunately, the word “depressed” is used to describe other common and temporary experiences, such as “I don’t get to go to the party. I’m so depressed.”

A major depressive disorder, however, is an illness, not a temporary feeling of sadness.

Clinical depression is an actual illness that requires medical care, just like cancer or diabetes​3​

Diabetics cannot think away their condition. Depressed patients cannot think of their mental illness away, either.

Saying things to dismiss this serious condition doesn’t make it go away. In the end, it makes you apathetic to your teen’s pain.

Trivialize Their Pain

  • “I know how you feel”
  • “It’s not that bad.”
  • “It’s ok. It’ll pass.”

What you try to do:

Minimize or dismiss their pain, and it will go away.

Why it’s bad:

You don’t know how your sad child feels if you have never had this condition. Even if you were depressed before and recovered on your own, you did not have the same illness as your teen.

Ironically, minimizing someone’s pain makes it bigger. The more you invalidate your teenager’s pain, the more painful it becomes, and the more depressed they are​4​.

Guilt Trip Them

  • “Many people have worse problems.”
  • “Think about others, not just yourself.”
  • “You think you have it bad.”

What you try to do:

Your hope is that comparing will help your child realize they shouldn’t be depressed.

Why it’s bad:

First, people don’t choose to be depressed any more than they choose to have cancer. You can’t make it go away by guilt-tripping them.

Second, suffering is not a competition. The pain of one person does not negate the pain of another. Comparing and guilt tripping is another form of invalidation that will only make your teen feel worse​5​.

Pretend Nothing Happens

  • “Take some vitamins.”
  • “It’s all in your head.”
  • “Just get out of bed and do something.”

What you try to do:

Your child will not dwell on their depression if you pretend nothing happened.

Why it’s bad:

Again, teen depression is not a choice. Your child cannot help the sad feelings. Feeling depressed is not an active decision to dwell on it.

In some cases, parents feel better when they pretend nothing happened. They show their teenagers that they don’t care when they bury their heads in the sand. 

If someone who should love you doesn’t care about your pain, anyone would be depressed. Indeed, depression is exacerbated by parental indifference​6​.

Condemn Them

  • “What are you depressed about? You have everything.”
  • “Just snap out of it.”
  • “You’re just spoiled.”
  • “Stop whining.”

What you try to do:

Blaming them may seem like a good way to get them to “snap out of it.”

Why it’s bad:

People with depression may feel worthless and ashamed. These feelings may deepen the depression or worse, trigger suicidal thoughts​7​.

Saying hurtful things will do more harm than good.

Platitudes

  • “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
  • “You’ll be fine.”
  • “You’ll get over it.”

What you try to do:

Offer hope to your depressed teenager.

Why it’s bad:

One of the characteristic depression symptoms is the loss of hope​8​.

It is difficult for depressed patients to see the hope you offer in these cliches. If you insist on them feeling something they are not capable of feeling, it can become very frustrating.

What To Say To A Depressed Teen

A healthy person may have a difficult time imagining what kind of mental pain a depressed person feels. 

It is alright not to understand.

Acceptance and love are what teenagers with depression want.

Here are some suggestions on how to help your depressed teen.

“I love you.”

Show your love. It’s just that simple.

When your child is sad, it is tempting to say many things to help bring more comfort to them. But simply showing your love is enough to make them feel better at that moment.

Things you can say to show your love are:

  • “I love you”
  • “I care about you.”
  • “I’m here for you.”
  • “Let me know how I can help.”
  • “You are very important to me.”
  • “I love you for who you are.”
  • “It must be tough. I can’t imagine how you feel, but I’m here to help if you need me.”

Also See: Parenting Teenagers

Don’t Feel Obligated To Say Something

A teen with depression will cry or not want to talk.

It’s natural for adults to want to help when they see a teenager cry, but the best thing parents can do is just be there.

The things we say to stop our children from crying are often the wrong things.

“It’s okay,” “You’ll be fine,” or “Don’t worry.”

Often, they are not what a depressed teen wants to hear.

The tears aren’t making them sad-they’re just an expression of their sadness. 

Rather than trying so hard to stop them from crying, hug them or lend them your shoulder to cry on and let them know that you care.

NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION LIFELINE

If your teenager has suicidal thoughts, call 800-273-8255 to speak with someone today.

References

  1. 1.
    . Adolescent mental health. World Health Organization. Published 2021. Accessed 2023. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/adolescent-mental-health
  2. 2.
    Miron O, Yu KH, Wilf-Miron R, Kohane IS. Suicide Rates Among Adolescents and Young Adults in the United States, 2000-2017. JAMA. Published online June 18, 2019:2362. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.5054
  3. 3.
    Reddy MS. Depression: The Disorder and the Burden. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine. Published online January 2010:1-2. doi:10.4103/0253-7176.70510
  4. 4.
    Buckholdt KE, Parra GR, Jobe-Shields L. Intergenerational Transmission of Emotion Dysregulation Through Parental Invalidation of Emotions: Implications for Adolescent Internalizing and Externalizing Behaviors. J Child Fam Stud. Published online June 25, 2013:324-332. doi:10.1007/s10826-013-9768-4
  5. 5.
    Yap MBH, Allen NB, Ladouceur CD. Maternal Socialization of Positive Affect: The Impact of Invalidation on Adolescent Emotion Regulation and Depressive Symptomatology. Child Development. Published online September 2008:1415-1431. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2008.01196.x
  6. 6.
    Liu Y. Parent–child interaction and children’s depression: the relationships between Parent–Child interaction and children’s depressive symptoms in Taiwan. Journal of Adolescence. Published online July 9, 2003:447-457. doi:10.1016/s0140-1971(03)00029-0
  7. 7.
    Hastings ME, Northman LM, Tangney JP. Shame, Guilt, and Suicide. Suicide Science.:67-79. doi:10.1007/0-306-47233-3_6
  8. 8.
    Cheavens J. Hope and Depression. Handbook of Hope. Published online 2000:321-340. doi:10.1016/b978-012654050-5/50019-1

About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University). Learn more

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