I’ve worked with teenagers and the adults who love them for over eighteen years. As a former high school counselor and group facilitator, and now as a mental health therapist and the parent of a teenager, I know this one thing to be true: Teens don’t care what you know until they know that you care.
This is especially true when you are raising or leading a teen struggling with despair or depression.
It’s inevitable. Teens will go through challenging times. Times of disappointment, rejection, regret, and loss. Naturally, those circumstances can generate feelings of significant sadness. Sadness is a normal part of human existence. When those feelings linger too long, however, it can turn into despair or depression. According to the American Psychological Association, depression is defined as “a negative affective state, ranging from unhappiness and discontent to an extreme feeling of sadness, pessimism, and despondency, that interferes with daily life.”
What that definition doesn’t say is…depression hurts. Depression isn’t just psychological; it’s physiological. It can be felt in the body as a deep heaviness and can make the individual struggling with depression feel physical pain, leading them to isolate from and push away the very thing he or she needs: connection.
We serve a relational God who offers His hope through relationships here on earth. As a caring adult, you are uniquely positioned to influence the life of a teen struggling with depression.
So, how can small group leaders and parents help?
In Seen: Healing Despair and Anxiety in Kids and Teens Through the Power of Connection, my friend Will Hutchenson and I outline five connection tools that will guide small group leaders and parents to help kids and teens feel seen and heard.
Here are five ways that you can help teens struggling with depression.
Those in the ministry world understand the idea of the ministry of presence. Parents, even those who may not have heard this term before, grasp this concept as well. A teen struggling with depression doesn’t really need advice, a lecture, or a motivational speech. They just need a caring parent’s or leader’s presence. They need you to be there beside them as they cry, vent, or say nothing at all. Being present, without the expectation of a conversation, helps the teen feel loved. Get their permission to check in every so often via text or voice text. Let them know there is no expectation that they respond, but that you want them to know they are not alone. Being present may also include encouraging them to focus on self-care. Inviting them for a walk, a jog, a latte, or a movie—those activities can go a long way toward getting them moving, which helps to eventually decrease depression. (Safety tip: Wherever you invite the teen, make sure other people are around.)
Allow room for complicated emotions
Depression often does not come with a cheery disposition. If you’ve ever experienced depression, you know it takes every ounce of energy to smile or even get out of bed. Symptoms of depression often include feelings of worthlessness and excessive guilt.
Try to be patient with the teen and allow room for their big and complicated emotions. Try not to take it personally. Invite them to help you understand what it is that they are feeling. And regardless of what they share, resist the urge to label their emotions as “dramatic” or indicate that they are “so blessed and don’t have anything to be depressed about.” Validate their emotions and thank them for sharing. Remember, validation does not mean that you necessarily agree or disagree, but that the relationship is important and that you are seeking to learn what it is like to walk in their shoes right now.
A depressed teen may not always look or act depressed. They may present outwardly as outgoing, gregarious, and, well, happy. Some teens do everything in their power to cover up or mask what they are experiencing out of shame or fear of judgment. They may be talkative, but not necessarily willing to talk about their depression. If and when your teen is ready to talk, be prepared to listen mindfully.
Here are some ways to mindfully listen:
- Listen without distractions.
- Listen without interrupting.
- Maintain gentle eye contact.
- Rephrase what they say in your own words.
- Check in to ensure you’ve heard them accurately.
- Never share what they share without permission. (Unless they’ve indicated they’re thinking of harming themselves or someone else. Then tell your leadership at church immediately.)
Build them up
Depression and despair have a tricky way of making it seem like nothing you are doing is right and that God is far, far away. Social media, while not all bad, can make your teen feel as if he or she is only “acceptable” when they look a certain way or get a certain number of likes. The good news is that there are ways for you to help increase the teen’s self-confidence and God-confidence. Offer your teen the assurance that God loves them—no matter what they are experiencing—and has a purpose for their life. Perhaps share your own story of how God redeemed an area of your life you felt certain was irredeemable. Share with them that they can find hope in the midst of their struggle.
Here are some other ways to build them up:
- Praise effort over outcome: “I see all the effort you’re putting toward self-care lately. I am proud of you.”
- Encourage them to make choices. Balance freedom with guidance.
- Remind them that God is bigger than their circumstance. “This is not too big for God.”
- Tell them God can handle their self-doubts and perceived failures.
- And my personal favorite: “You are wonderfully and fearfully made.”
Gather your resources
Let’s face it, loving and guiding a teen with depression can be exhausting. It’s not easy. Be sure to get support for yourself. Support can be in the form of a consultation with your senior pastor or ministry leader or a mental health professional who specializes in working with teen depression. Depending on the circumstances and the relationship, you and the teen’s parents can be of support to each other. They may be willing to share advice with you from their own experience or their child’s pediatrician or therapist. You may be able to share some of the tips above with them, or, if you don’t already have a relationship with the parent, reach out to begin one.
Depression is one of the most common mental health challenges, and fortunately, very treatable. If the symptoms one of your teens is experiencing seem to be worsening, please consult a mental health professional.
Want to learn more? If you’re looking for additional resources for yourself or for a parent dealing with a child’s depression or anxiety, consider grabbing Seen: Healing Despair and Anxiety in Kids and Teens Through the Power of Connection, Will & I outline five connection tools that will guide small group leaders and parents to help kids and teens feel seen and heard. We believe these practical tools can help promote healing in a kid or teen struggling with despair or depression.