Conversations with teenagers: when they have anxiety and depression

Teenagers and teenage years are challenging. As their bodies and brains grow a whole lot of changes happen, many of which are unseen and often seem to arrive without warning. In this series I’ve been talking about keeping communication lines open with teenagers and nurturing a deep and fulfilling relationship with them while you are still their parent. Difficult work at times, and now let’s add in the growing levels of anxiety and depression that are being diagnosed in our culture.

It can be so hard to tell, are they anxious and depressed, or are they just being teenagers? If you’re at all worried about their mental health then don’t leave it, go and see your Doctor and share your concerns about their health. Your teenager may not be sure themselves if they are okay and many teenagers will try to fight anxiety and depression on their own; either not realising they are ill or else feeling like there is something wrong with them that they don’t want to deal with. And they won’t know how to deal with it either. Having anxiety and depression and keeping it to yourself is the absolute worst thing you can do. The only way through a mental illness is with help and support; the sooner you get this started the better.

Never leave a conversation with your teenager if you are worried that you ‘might be putting ideas into their head’. Chances are extremely high that they have already thought about it themselves. If you start a chat with them where you wonder out loud if they have anxiety or depression you may be saving their life. Teenagers are still kids and they need to know they can talk to you about anything that is bothering them while still keeping your unconditional love.

They may think that you might not love them if they are anxious or depressed (remember these illnesses change thought patterns) . They might not want to be any trouble, or they might think that their burden will be too big for you to help with. All these reasons will be valid to them and may make it hard to get to the bottom of how they are feeling. Know though that if they can’t talk it out, they will act it out. So watch, listen, love them and share your concerns.


If they tell you they’re not ok, be empathetic.  Give them a hug and tell them you love them.  Let them know that they are your priority and that you are there for them.  It’s also helpful to find out if the anxiety or depression has come on suddenly or slowly, has it just arrived or has it been creeping up bit by bit.   So ask them that “Has this come on suddenly, or has it been creeping up slowly?” Get their perspective on their thoughts.

Partnering with your teenager

Know your job is to listen, not fix. Be aware of any empathy blockers that may have inserted themselves in your brain - see yesterday’s post on going deeper for a recap. Build trust by being accepting, non judgemental and loving.  

Ask them “What things are you doing to help yourself, and how are those things working for you?”

Establish rapport

Be a reflective listener and ask open questions.  No labelling or blockers allowed.  Remember the parts of 2 rule: 2 ears and 1 mouth = listen twice as much as you speak.  The biggest difference you can make for them right now is to treat them like an adult, not like a naughty child.  Trust that they know the answers within themselves and be there to help them, support them and let them find them.  

Teenagers need to know they are heard and respected

Lip service won’t cut it.  They need quality parenting that reflects your values and beliefs and empowers them to become better people.  They deserve to receive empathy and support from you.  And they deserve to have their concerns heard and reflected back to them. 

How can you help

Make an offer, say “What can I do to help?” and be prepared to make a plan. There are lots of pathways and alternatives to explore.  Be guided by their wishes and if you are concerned that what they’re doing isn’t enough/going to work then phone lifeline yourself and talk over options with a trained support person.  It’s a free service that you shouldn’t hesitate to use. 

They may say no, they think they’ve got this but you being available to listen and support them is what they need.  In which case keep checking in with them.

It’s so not about you

Notice your own triggers.  When your teenager tells you “I just want to die.” It hits you in the heart, and the head, and the stomach and you’ll probably find you’re also carrying an enormous amount of tension in your chin and your shoulders.    You find yourself wondering why you’re not good enough for them to want to live, and where you’ve gone wrong as a parent. You might be mad with them that they’re so ungrateful for the wonderful life you’ve given them, or the sacrifices you’ve made for them.  And this is coupled with the awareness that you have a very real chance of losing them.  Be kind to yourself.  Know that what they’re saying is not about you. It is important that you spend some time taking deep breaths as you process this life altering information.  Talk to someone else and share your load. If you have a sensitive, empathetic teenager they might not share freely if they’re worried about hurting your feelings.

Deal with your stuff

Notice what triggers you and how what they say to you makes you feel. Think of a stop sign before you lose the plot, open your mouth and say something you may later regret. We all know words have enormous power so use them wisely; your teenager will be feeling incredibly vulnerable. You will be panicking at some level but that know that the antidote to depression is action and by taking steps, no matter how small, you are making a difference.

Get supported

Take care to look after yourself, be proactive about working on your stuff and get yourself support. Go looking for a coach or a counsellor for yourself; you are probably going to need it. Facebook has a number of wonderful support groups and information you can access. The more you can learn and be informed the better equipped you will be to deal with this challenge. Tell people who care about you and your family what is happening, share your load and get supported.

And be kind to yourself. When you had this beautiful baby you weren’t signing up specifically to parent a teenager who is struggling with their mental health. Give yourself a break and know that you will find a way to manage this crisis; small steps forward will take you through.