Help for Teen Blues

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
September 15, 2016

Better sleep, diet, and exercise can make a big difference.

You have a teen? My sympathy! 

You’ll hear that refrain among American parents, who murmur among themselves that adolescence is routinely hellish for the rest of the family. The fact is, lots of teens do just fine and are mostly good company.  

But high rates of teen depression have been keeping parents on the edge. Some teens become rebellious and critical of their parents and siblings. Some slide into anxiety or apathy, fly into rages, or take risks with drugs, alcohol, sex, cars, and guns. 


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Approval from peers becomes important to most. You want your teen to feel socially successful — but remember not to pick up exaggerated fears. Even if she feels left out, you needn’t panic if she’s not prom queen. Just one close friend goes a long way, one study found. 

Also, don’t assume as a parent that you have little to offer. One 2016 study of a large group of teenagers found that those who had very supportive parents showed fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression than kids whose parents were less involved. Surprisingly, peer support levels didn’t make much difference. 

Your response to stress sets an example. One study measured how anxious parents became when their teens gave a speech. Teens whose parents weren’t especially anxious were more collected in later interactions with peers. 

Support your teens’ interests, and help steer them towards a sense of purpose, which is linked to greater life satisfaction at all ages. 

Address basic habits: sleep, exercise, and diet all affect mood in both teens and adults. Learning that lesson will help your teen over a lifetime. 

Exercise is a mood booster, especially for couch potatoes, though research suggests it won’t substitute for therapy. Lack of sleep may be the hardest problem to fix because many school schedules, combined with homework and athletics, are too demanding. Sleep-deprivation is linked to depression in teens, so encourage naps and keep the phone and other electronics out of bed. 


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People turn to sugary junk food and diet drinks as a boost, but they’re ultimately downers. Even simply not eating enough vegetables and fruits and sticking to a limited repertoire — typically meat and bread — can drag down mood, according to a study of more than 7,000 teens. You might try telling your daughter a salad isn’t just “good for her” but could make her happier over time. There’s actually evidence that prebiotics that feed healthy bacteria in the gut — vegetables count — change how your mind functions in beneficial ways. Volunteer to go on a sugar fast with her if she’s addicted to sweets.

Many people try supplements to boost mood. Some early research supports magnesium, as well as fish oils and SAM-e, but none of these approaches have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a treatment for depression.   

Meditation for teens is also increasingly popular. The prestigious Cochrane review suggests that relaxation techniques generally can be a first-line treatment for low mood — consider setting a deadline and seeking plenty of feedback from your child about whether she’s actually practicing a relaxation technique and if it is helping.

You’ll often hear, based on older science, that antidepressants combined with talk therapy are the gold standard for treating depression in teens. But a 2014 review from the Cochrane Review has concluded that there’s no evidence to back that claim. Therapy alone might work, antidepressants alone might work, and overall more research is needed to make a strong case for any approach. On the other hand, there is still some reason to worry that antidepressants can increase thoughts of suicide. Your child’s doctor and therapists you consult can help you decide on the risks and benefits in her case. You’re still in charge.   


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September 15, 2016

Reviewed By:

Christopher Nystuen

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