Expert Teen Depression Tips From Gary E. Nelson

teenage girl looking out window

Depression is an issue that affects many families, yet it's seldom publicly discussed. Many parents who have teens struggling with depression fail to understand the extent of the problem or wonder if it's somehow their fault. Unfortunately, this sometimes keeps teens from getting the help they deserve.

In A Relentless Hope: Surviving the Storm of Teen Depression, pastor Gary E. Nelson uses his experience as a counselor to offer support to families in need. He also shares the story of how his family coped with his son Tom's severe depression and anxiety. The book encourages an attitude of acceptance and empathy when dealing with self-doubt, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, and other symptoms of severe depression. Unlike other books on the subject, A Relentless Hope takes a candid, yet slightly humorous look, at the challenges associated with helping a depressed teen succeed in life. Tom's journey toward adulthood is also a great comfort for those who wonder if there really is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Interview with Gary E. Nelson

Recently, Gary E. Nelson took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for the readers of LoveToKnow Recovery.

What inspired you to write your book?

I never started out to write a book. As we moved through my son's journey with depression and anxiety and I worked with other teens and their families going through similar situations, I began to learn a lot that I could pass on to others. My son, Tom, gave me permission to share his story with others in my clinical practice as a pastoral counselor, and I watched as his story inspired and taught others. I also discovered that parents gave me more credibility because they knew I'd been through the journey as a parent myself.

How is teen depression different from the depression experienced by adults?

The short answer is that it's not very different. As a matter of fact, as adults have started reading the book, many of them have remarked to me that the book describes their experience battling adult depression. They've told me that the book has really helped them to better understand their own journeys as well as the journeys of depressed teens.

There are some differences for teens and adults if you consider the life cycle issues. As I said in the book, depression often hits teens just at the time when they are wrestling with identity issues. This often severely complicates that process. Adults may have first encountered depression as teens and formed self identities confused by the struggle with depression. Other adults make it through the identity formation period of life without depression, only to encounter it at a later stage in their life cycle.

Teens also have less control of their own lives than adults, so conflicts in families may be more intensified for teens with depression. The more teens "act out" when they don't "feel well" the more their actions are likely to be interpreted by parents as "rebellious behavior" that must be controlled or "squashed."

I also think that some of the ways teens try to cope are different than adults, again probably determined in part by the difference in their freedom to make life choices at that younger age. Teens want to escape from their pain just like adults, but teens have fewer options.

What are some of the signs that parents should look for if they think their teen may be depressed?

I'll give you a list of specific "symptoms," but first let me make this general statement. As I said in the book, I believe strongly that teens want to succeed. They want to live healthy, fulfilling, productive lives. They want to be told it's nice to have them around. When parents start to see their teen struggling with school, relationships, or life in general, parents need to wonder if something might be getting in the teen's way. Too often, parents assume that the difficulties they see their teen experiencing are just "part of being a teenager."

Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between "typical teen feelings" and feelings a depressed teen might be experiencing. The key is for parents to seek help when their teen struggles instead of just assuming it will go away on its own, or that the teen can just get rid of the feelings if they would only "straighten up and fly right."

Teenage boy looking depressed
10 Signs of Depression Slideshow

Here's a list of some of the more typical things parents should look for that might indicate that a teen is suffering from depression or one of its relatives like anxiety or bipolar disorder:

  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Social isolation and poor communication
  • Sadness that just won't go away
  • Unexplained irritability
  • Outbursts of rage
  • Acts of violence or bullying
  • Changes in eating habits - sometimes eat more or less
  • Lots of complaining, negativity
  • Hopelessness
  • Frequent complaints of boredom
  • Reckless and/or thrill seeking behavior
  • Self-mutilation like cutting or burning or self-tattooing
  • Aches and pains that endure even with treatment
  • Racing thoughts
  • Eating disorders - anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, or yo-yo dieting
  • Lots of missed school
  • Abuse of alcohol and drugs
  • Low self-esteem or severe shyness
  • Crying spells
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Extra sensitivity to rejection or failure
  • High anxiety
  • Fatigue and lack of energy
  • Lots of interest in many things, including things that used to be fun
  • Emotional numbness
  • Feeling easily overwhelmed
  • Changes in sleeping habits - sleeps too much, or difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, or doesn't need to sleep
  • Talks or writes about death or suicide

Every depressed teen or adult will look somewhat different because each can have a different constellation of these symptoms.

In your opinion, what can parents do to support a teen who is suffering from depression?

In a sense, the whole book is the answer to this question, but I'll try to name two simple things here.

"Just keep loving them" is by far in my opinion the most important thing parents can do when their child is going through this valley of the shadow of death. It sounds simple, and it is simple, but it's certainly not easy. The supportive, nurturing, healing relationships of family, friends, professionals and others are by far the most important components of a teen's recovery. Parents need to control their own fear and other emotions as they struggle through with their child so that the relationship they share is not destroyed.

The second things parents can do that I'll mention here is simply this -- get help. Don't try to walk this path alone. Seek appropriate professional help from the mental health field for you and your child, seek relational help from your family and friends, and seek spiritual help from your spiritual community.

What advice would you give to a teen suffering from depression who does not feel able to confide in his/her parents?

Here's what I'm telling a teen who's suffering -- talk to someone! Start with a peer if necessary but talk to someone. There are many adults available to teens through various systems and organizations. There are adults at school, in their religious communities, and in various community agencies who can help the teen get started on the road to healing and also help the teen find a way to educate their parents about this awful illness called depression. That's often the major issue with parents when it comes to depression and its relatives.

Most parents and other adults don't understand the illness and need to be educated. In my work I've found that most parents (even the ones most difficult to talk with) can be educated about depression and taught healthier ways to interact with their teen. When teens are depressed their parents often naturally think the teen is "misbehaving." The parents have to be taught that in reality, the teen is "hurting." When most parents see the "hurt" their teen is experiencing, their relationship with their teen improves.

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Expert Teen Depression Tips From Gary E. Nelson