Behavioral Consult

Pediatric depression and parents


In October of 2021, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Children’s Hospital Association jointly declared a National State of Emergency in Children’s Mental Health and called on policy makers to address a host of challenges that have impeded access to effective mental health care for youth.

In November, we wrote about how pediatricians may increase their use of screening for adolescent depression and initiate treatment when appropriate.

Dr. Susan D. Swick, physician in chief at Ohana, Center for Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health, Community Hospital of the Monterey (Calif.) Peninsula.

Dr. Susan D. Swick

Now we complement that piece with guidance you may offer the parents of your depressed adolescent patients. Adolescent depression is a common pediatric disorder, especially in the COVID-19 era when so many relationships and activities have been limited or cut off. With treatment, most adolescents recover. Accepting that it may be taking longer to find a therapist, you can make treatment recommendations, support the teenager and parents, address safety concerns and, if the depression is of moderate or more serious severity, start medications. Parents are your natural partners as they are concerned about their children’s health and safety and eager for guidance on how to best support their recovery.

Dr. Michael S. Jellinek, professor emeritus of psychiatry and pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Boston

Dr. Michael S. Jellinek

Adolescence is a time in which parents transition to more of a consulting than a controlling posture with their children, but illness calls for a shift toward setting rules and routines that will support health and healing. Prepare both the teenager (in a 1:1 discussion) and parents for this temporary shift, and for some teenagers, expect resistance. Depression will make the teenager more unhappy and irritable. It also causes withdrawal, by sapping energy and making one feel unwelcome at activities, believing his or her presence will be a burden to others. Treatment includes something called “behavioral activation,” or continuous nudging, to keep the patient involved in social, intellectual, and physical activities. Parents (and siblings) are the keys to this behavioral activation, whether nudging to participate in a board game or a walk. Reassure parents they should not take it personally when their teen resists, and not be discouraged if they fail sometimes. Their focus is on calmly, warmly, and repeatedly prompting their children with nudges toward these routines and activities. They should be ready to remind them why they are “nagging,” framing these efforts explicitly as supporting recovery from depression. If possible, applying these rules to everyone at home will help. They need to avoid being drawn into conflict, focusing instead on staying connected to their teens. Their task is to keep planning and cajoling, giving their children multiple opportunities to participate, pushing back against depression’s gravitational pull for total withdrawal.


One of the most important thing parents can do for their depressed adolescents is to support their healthy restful sleep. During adolescence, the timing of sleep naturally shifts later, and the need for restful sleep increases. Working against the demands of homework, extracurricular activities, and social connections, sleep often suffers during adolescence. Further sleep disruptions, including difficulty falling asleep and frequent awakening during sleep or in the early morning, are typical of depression. Restful sleep is instrumental to recovery, and parents need to help their depressed teens set good sleep habits. This includes setting a time for bed that is realistic and consistent and turning off screens 30 minutes before lights out. A soothing, consistent bedtime routine, including a hot shower and reading in bed, is a powerful cue for sleep. Getting daily exercise and avoiding a heavy meal and caffeine in the hours before bed supports both falling and staying asleep. Having light reading near bed (magazines or comics) instead of screens can provide a way to pass 30 minutes if they wake up during the night (ideally reading out of bed), one that will not make it harder for them to go back to sleep. Finally, teens should not be allowed to spend all day in bed or nap in the afternoon. This may be the hardest task for parents, as adolescents naturally treat their beds like their center of operations and depression lowers their energy and initiative. If parents set these rules and routines for all members of the family, it can improve the chances that their depressed adolescents may begin to return to healthy sleep.


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