Teen is Depressed and Disrupted. How Do I Approach Him?

This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on June 15, 2020, by Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS; Health Affiliates Maine. 

Question:  My 19-year-old just finished his first year in college–remotely most of this last semester, of course. He suffers from depression and anxiety and the change in being back home, schooling remotely (with dropping grades), and not seeing his friends regularly has his depression and anxiety creeping up. He pulls a lot of all-nighters and insists it’s the only way to stay connected to friends after the “school day.” I don’t think the lack of sleep helps. Since he is officially an adult, I don’t feel like I have a lot of say. How can I approach him in a place of love and help?

Answer:  You are asking how to share your concern, and maybe guidance, without resistance on the part of your son. You answered your question yourself; you approach him from a place of love and help. At 19 he still needs your caring influence. It sounds like he needs it now more than ever. In my view, our kids never stop needing us, it is just the way they need us that grows and changes. Whenever any of our loved ones suffer from an episode of mental or emotional distress, it is a signal that help may be needed, no matter what age. Decisions or lack of decisions they make for themselves may not be in their best interest. There are times we may have to temporarily step in, in a more assertive way, to make decisions for them. Keeping them safe is the primary concern.

Here are some things to try to open him up so he can hear what you are saying.

Schedule the discussion:  “I would like to set aside some time later this afternoon to talk about all the challenges you are faced with right now.” It is like a road sign that says “Rest stop ahead”. It helps lay the groundwork for him to hear what you have to say. 

Recognize his discomfort:  “I have realized that you are not yourself lately, and who could blame you, with things being awful right now.” He probably can’t argue with that.

Share your feelings:  “I feel really concerned when I see your depression and anxiety creeping up. It is very apparent. I know it must be hard for you. I would feel happier if we could talk about a plan so you can start feeling better.” This will change the focus to you, which might be more comfortable for him.

Do your homework:  Have some reputable sites available to refer to regarding the discussion of anxiety and depression. Ask him to agree to also visit these sites on his own. You are right about the lack of sleep. One of the first things addressed in the treatment of depression is clearing up the sleep issue.

Be prepared to get help.  If your son has been treated before for the issues with depression and anxiety, it is definitely time for a check-up. Connecting with a counselor may be a key in helping him face the uncertainty and make decisions. At this age, it is good to encourage him to solve this with a counselor, which fits better in his developmental task of growing independent of you.

Allow him to choose:  If you can get him to agree to get counseling assistance, have him read about individual counselors on agency websites or on the Psychology Today website. He should pick one that feels like a good fit. Many counselors provide telehealth services and/or in-person sessions.

Don’t hesitate to get help: There are rare occasions when a loved one is so depressed or ill that they are a threat to themselves or someone else. In these serious times, you might need to make tough decisions about getting help for your loved one without their consent, by taking them to the emergency department or by calling 911 for assistance. Know that they will be angry, but after getting help are most often understanding of your action. 

These uncertain times are tough on us all, but especially for young high school graduates and college students.  Your son is fortunate to have a parent like you looking out for him.

Note to parents:  Students in their first year of college sometimes struggle with adapting. Leaving home for college is a transitional leap for which some students are unprepared emotionally.  Living away from home, having a roommate, experimenting with substance use, and the independent learning expectations can be overwhelming for some. A year back home, with counseling help, and perhaps a job can be all they need to successfully try again.

Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS is a professional counselor and the Outpatient Therapy Director at Health Affiliates Maine. 


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