Parents are understandably worried about their teens. Last year’s spate of teen suicides in Palo Alto, coupled with high rates of teen depression, make parents wonder what they could be doing to better help their kids navigate the sometimes-treacherous waters of their adolescent 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 longitudinal 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 supports 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 sour, disappointments in their work, the stress of academics or college 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 responding.
Parents can also help their kids through emotional coaching, according to Christine Carter, starting with accepting their and their teen’s feelings. Some recent studies suggest that practicing mindfulness—a nonjudgmental awareness of one’s present emotions, thoughts, and experiences—can help parents keep their cool when interacting with teens, which helps teens avoid depression, anxiety, and drug use (which has been itself linked to depression).
Similarly, a recent randomized control trial found that a nine-session mindfulness group program offered in schools significantly decreased depression symptoms in students immediately afterward and up to six months later in comparison to students in a control group. Other social-emotional programs in schools have had similar results, and have also helped teens do better academically.
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. Longitudinal research on adolescent mental health suggests that we don’t want to discount our teens’ friendships or discourage normal group bonding.
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 sour. 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 by Kendall Bronk and colleagues, purpose was associated with greater life satisfaction and hope in all age groups, including teens.
Bronk suggests 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. She also suggests practicing gratitude as a way of encouraging purpose, and other research has found that gratitude also provides direct psychological benefits for teens.
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.
As teen advocate Vicki Abeles argues in her book, Beyond Measure, petitioning schools to assign less homework to students over holidays and vacations, while providing more specialized tutoring for kids who may need the extra attention, may help kids find more balance in their lives. Restorative justice programs at schools that help teens take responsibility for problematic behaviors (like bullying) and make amends to those affected have shown promise in reducing absenteeism and improving social climates for all students.
Of course, the path to teen depression can be varied and complicated. We can’t simply apply a formula and expect everything to turn out fine. As my brother-in-law told me when my first son was born, “Children are not machines.” That means that we must treat them as individuals and recognize their unique skills and challenges, while providing the kinds of supports they need to thrive, whatever challenges they face.
In that way, we not only help teens to avoid problems like depression, we help shape a positive future for them and for society.