Behaviour & Emotions Health & Well-being

How to talk to your teens about depression

Depressed teen

There are so many challenges that we face as parents. The never-ending laundry pile, the rapidly evolving teenage lexicon and then knowing which words and phrases of said lexicon are appropriate for 'old people' like parents to use (short answer: none). However, almost nothing can prepare you for the challenge of your child being affected by depression, especially in the teenage years.

As parents, we have a powerful desire to protect our children – you may have even wanted them to wear a helmet and a safety harness when colouring. However, if we notice that our kids are struggling with depression, it can often lead to a sense of failure and a questioning of our ability to parent, or maybe even to our own sense of hopelessness.

It’s more common than you think

Before you spiral, let us remind you that it’s pretty common for young people to experience depression or the symptoms of depression throughout the adolescent years. According to the The Salvation Army's 2023 State of the Nation Report, nearly one in four young people are suffering from high levels of anxiety, fatigue and depression, with the same statistics being found on the Mental Health Foundation website.

The spectrum

It is important to point out that there is a depression spectrum. Down one end of the spectrum we have common issues that we all experience, like a bad mood. As you move along a little you could experience symptoms of mild depression, feeling flat or a loss of energy. A little further still and we may experience more serious stuff like situational depression, which is a condition primarily caused by loss or change. Finally, at the far end of the spectrum we have diagnosed depression.

Common symptoms of depression

Some of the common symptoms of depression are –

  • Hardly eating or always eating
  • Hardly sleeping or always sleeping
  • Crying for little or no reason
  • Giving up on activities or people that used to be important
  • Thinking about death and dying

Some of you might be reading that thinking, “My teens are always eating, always in bed, really emotional, and they don’t want to play sport anymore! Are my teens depressed?”

Well, maybe, but also maybe not. The first four of the symptoms on this list are also very common experiences for teenagers as they go through puberty (with the exception of hardly eating). As their bodies and brains grow and change it is normal for teenagers to change their interests, feel emotional, stay up late, eat heaps and then sleep for days.

But if you have noticed these symptoms in your young person, and you are worried about them, how do you actually bring it up with them? First, take a look at what the causes could be, and have some good questions up your sleeve to engage in helpful conversations. Read on for some great insights.

The first four of the symptoms on this list are also very common experiences for teenagers as they go through puberty (with the exception of hardly eating).

Common causes of depression

As well as depression having common symptoms, it also has some common causes. There are varied scientific theories about the causes of depression. To see what the Mental Health Foundation thinks, click here.

From our experience of depression and from the thousands of young people that we have worked with over the last decade, we would suggest that there are some common themes when it comes to causes.

Feeling lonely

As young people go through the changes and challenges of adolescence, many feel like no one understands them or what they are going through. That can easily lead to feeling lonely or alone. Add to that the social challenges of school and the online world and it’s easy to understand why so many young people end up experiencing loneliness.

Imagine having to make new friends in every new class that you went to. Imagine seeing endless photos online of people hanging out with their friends when you don’t have many. Imagine struggling with loneliness when everyone else seems to have somewhere they belong.

The feeling of loneliness is often a cause of the symptoms of depression.

Feeling stuck

Now, this isn’t getting physically stuck, like the time that I attempted to squeeze myself through a cat door. That did not lead to depression. That led to embarassment and a great 21st speech.

Feeling stuck is when a young person feels like they have no options. It feels like they just have to stick at something that they really don’t enjoy. Many young people start feeling stuck during Years 12 and 13 at school, mostly because they have been at school for 13 years straight. Also because they have mates who have gone on an O.E. during their gap year and they keep getting snapchats of their friends walking around London, while they are sitting in chemistry.

This is also a common experience in small towns, where young people have heaps of responsibility either at school or at home. Sometimes it’s when young people feel like there is a huge amount of expectation on how well they should do in life. Or maybe if they find themselves in a relationship or friendship that they don’t really want to be in, but they also don’t want to hurt the other person by ending it.

Depressive or suicidal thinking may be symptoms of feeling stuck.

Feeling hopeless

Hope is when you believe that tomorrow could be better than today. Hope is knowing that it won’t be like this forever. Hope is best friends with optimism.

Hopelessness is when everyday feels like it’s going to be just like yesterday, and chances are you didn’t really like yesterday. Hopelessness is hating today, and believing that it will always feel like this. Hopelessness is best friends with seeing the worst in everything.

I don’t think young people want to feel hopeless. In some ways I think it’s like a coping mechanism. If a young person has low expectations, then they can’t really be disappointed. Hopelessness often leads to more hopelessness. Many young people who are affected by hopelessness find themselves not seeing the point in anything. A loss of hope can often lead to symptoms of depression.

Feeling like life is pointless

What’s the point of life? This is a question that many young people find themselves asking during the mid to late stages of adolescence.

Somewhere between the ages 14 and 16 the teenage brain goes through a radical transformation where it prunes back unused neural pathways. Once this process is finished, the teenage brain is able to operate at much higher levels of reasoning.

This higher capacity for reasoning is an incredibly important step in becoming a fully functional adult with a fully functional brain. It also opens the door to some big existential questions. (To read more about his stage of brain development, check out this article published by Brainwave Trust – here).

Many young people try and answer these big questions by looking at the world around them, and in Western culture it means that young people often conclude that the point of life is to go to school, to get into uni, to get a good job, to buy a house, to get married, to have some kids, to send them to school, to get into uni, to get a good job and it goes on. Many young people, especially millennials, find this an incredibly depressing reality.

Helping young people to answer these big questions about their purpose is not only an interesting place to start this conversation, but also an essential building block for finding meaning in the world. It’s easy to see how having no purpose could lead to symptoms of depression.

This higher capacity for reasoning is an incredibly important step in becoming a fully functional adult with a fully functional brain. It also opens the door to some big existential questions.

Chemical imbalance

Your thoughts, your feelings, and your body, are all regulated by chemical messages. When your body doesn’t make enough of these key chemicals, such as serotonin, oestrogen and testosterone, this can have a significant impact on how you think and feel.

As a young person’s body changes throughout adolescence (especially for girls due to menstrual cycles), there are constant chemical changes. When they are running low it is very normal for teenagers to experience the symptoms of depression.

Have a good conversation

As a parent, if your child is struggling with the symptoms of depression, it can feel incredibly overwhelming. However, if you are able to have good conversations with your young person, and if you are able to help them to name some of the symptoms that they are experiencing, and maybe some of the causes, then depression might not feel as scary.

Sometimes just being able to name something can take some of its power away.

Ask good questions

How do you help your teen to have a better understanding of depression? By having good conversation. How do you have good conversations? By asking good questions. Here are some questions you could try.

  • What is the difference between a bad mood and depression?
  • What do you think are some of the common symptoms of depression?
  • How long do you think it takes someone to get over a break-up?
  • Do you think feeling lonely would make someone feel depressed?
  • What do you think the purpose of life is?
  • Have you ever felt really low, but had no real reason to feel low?
  • Do you usually think that tomorrow will be better or worse than today?

It is okay to struggle, but it is not okay to struggle alone.

Now, if your teenager is struggling with depression, they may not be super enthusiastic about engaging in conversation about depression. But if you can confidently demonstrate to them that you’re happy to discuss it they will be more likely to open up to talk to you about it in the future. If nothing else, tell them what Attitude presenters have spent years telling young people – it is okay to struggle, but it is not okay to struggle alone.

If you can be your child’s support person as they face depression, that’s awesome! However, it’s also important to know that there are so many amazing people and resources out there to support young people and families who are affected by depression.

Extra support

If you need extra support, you’re not alone. Here are some ideas of who you could contact –

  • Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234, or online chat here.
  • 1737 – Call or text any time to talk to a trained counsellor 24 hours a day for free here.
  • What’s Up – 0800 WHATS UP or online chat for 5-18 year olds here.
  • The Lowdown – Straight up answers for when life sucks, call 0800 111 757 or visit their website here.


Christian Gallen

Christian Gallen

Christian has spoken to over 100,000 young people nationwide during his long career as a youth communicator and presenter. His passion is seeing young people make great choices and thrive, both online and offline.

James Beck

James Beck

James Beck is a dynamic and gifted communicator, whose career has seen him speak to over 200,000 people in schools, prisons and workplaces across Aotearoa. Fuelled by a passion to see people reach their full potential, James weaves together insights from his own experience with the latest research findings to deliver relatable, humorous and empowering presentations. When he isn’t working, James is hanging out with his wife, Rebekah, and their three young kids.

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