It is an understandable situation when parents worry about their teens. At that stage of their lives, they are unsure about what they even want for themselves. This with many other things makes parents wonder what they could be doing to better help their kids navigate the sometimes-treacherous waters of their teenage years.
Fortunately, scientists who study teen depression have some preliminary advice. By looking at new findings in neuroscience, as well as other psychological research and data, scientists are zeroing in on a better understanding of what impacts teen depression and how to prevent it. Here are some of the suggestions coming out of the science.
1. Provide Continual Warmth, Caring, and Support
Parents may think that they have little to offer teens, but recent studies suggest otherwise.
In one 2016 study of a large group of teenagers from diverse ethnic backgrounds, results showed that teens with high levels of parental support had lower depression symptoms and lower cortisol and C-reactive protein levels – two physiological markers associated with depression – than teens with less supportive relationships. Interestingly, peer support levels did not change these markers, suggesting that parental support may be key.
In another study, Eva Telzer and colleagues found that having a positive relationship with parents decreased activation of the ventral striatum, the reward center of the brain, during a risk-taking exercise performed in the lab. This suggests that parents can help reduce higher levels of teen risk-taking, which has been associated with depression.
So what does positive parental support actually look like? According to developmental neuroscientist Ron Dahl, the best way to help guide your teens is to provide appropriate support without discounting their emotional lives. He suggests showing empathy, asking open-ended rather than pointed questions, seeking to understand rather than correct, being gentle when your teen’s words and actions don’t match and showing support for their growing autonomy. A combination of warmth and appropriate limits, as well as looking for the positive in your child, is the best way to help them avoid depression.
2. Teach and Model Strong Social and Emotional Skills
Just like adults, teens often have to cope with difficult social and emotional situations – changing friendships, romantic relationships going bad, disappointments in their work, and the stress of academics or university admissions procedures. Yet because brains are designed to heighten emotions during adolescence, coping with these challenges can be particularly difficult, making teens more prone to depression.
In one study, how parents responded to their teen’s distress during a stressful task impacted how the teens were able to handle anxiety in the real world. Teens were asked to make a speech while being evaluated, and those teens whose parents demonstrated low levels of anxiety during the speech were less reactive later on in emotionally charged interactions with their peers. This suggests that parents can help their kids face emotional challenges by modeling positive emotional responses.
READ MORE: Signs of Anxiety in Kids & Teens
3. Encourage Positive Peer Relationships
All teens look to their peers for approval and status. But if these relationships are fraught, they may lead to depression.
In a 2005 study of 421 adolescents by Annette La Greca and Hannah Harrison, having positive friendships, being in a romantic relationship, and feeling a part of a social crowd were protective against developing social anxiety and depression. However, negativity – or worse, victimization and abuse – in friendships and romantic relationships predicted social anxiety and depression.
One recent study found that teens with at least one close friend were more psychologically resilient because friendship helped them to cope with emotional setbacks in healthier ways. Other studies have shown that high-quality friendships and being part of an accepting social crowd provide benefits down the road including not only less depression and anxiety, but also better quality adult relationships and improved physical health.
So how can parents help? By not freaking out because our kids have “too many” or “not enough” friends, and by understanding that taking risks in relationships is part of growing up. Parents can find time to talk to their teens about what it means to be a caring friend and a thoughtful romantic partner, and how to protect oneself if a relationship goes bad. Being a role model yourself for how to negotiate differences in friendships can help your kids see that relationships don’t always have to be perfect to be nurturing and that close friendships can last a lifetime.
4. Encourage Teens to Seek Purpose in Life
As teens put lots of effort into excelling at schoolwork and after-school activities, it’s important that those activities have some personal meaning for them, rather than serving as padding for college applications. Research shows that having a sense of purpose in life – or even searching for one – is beneficial for teens, especially as they get older. In one study, the researchers suggest that parents need to engage their teens by asking open-ended questions about what they care about and then listening carefully to their responses, in order to assess where their sense of purpose may lie.
5. Work to Change the School Environment
We want what’s best for our kids; but some of that may involve things beyond the scope of our own family – systemic changes in schools, for example, that could lead to better psychological health for teens.
In light of research showing that teens who are sleep-deprived do worse in school and have a higher likelihood of developing depression, some parents are pressuring high schools to have later starting times. In addition, parents are insisting that schools provide healthy food to students, so they will get the good nutrition needed to prevent mental health issues down the road.
Researchers also petition schools to assign less homework to students over holidays and vacations while providing more specialized tutoring for kids who may need the extra attention, which may help kids find more balance in their lives.