Depression often occurs when something that has been rewarding, reinforcing, consistent, or available gets taken away. We get depressed when relationships end, when we lose people we care about, and the things that we were taking for granted are suddenly no longer available. Depression is the lack of something. Depression is often associated with loss, change, or a disconnection with the reinforcing aspects of our life.
People are often depressed when they don’t have enough connections, experiences, interactions, or things in their life that naturally bring about joy, peace, or a sense of well-being. Depression can often be associated with lack of activity, becoming withdrawn, and staying in bed. People sometimes get depressed when they don’t have enough to do, or when they are overwhelmed with multiple demands.
Teens can often be depressed because they do not get enough things in their life throughout the day that give them a sense of well-being or joy. Being able to take mental breaks, have activities that they look forward to doing, and have enough “down” or “me” time is critical in mitigating depressive symptoms. Taking a plethora of classes that one really dislikes, being behind in homework, and having non-stop activities scheduled until bedtime can sometimes be enough to get a teenager depressed. Social losses, such as a recent break up, an exclusion from a friend group, or navigating the unfamiliarity and changes of a demanding schedule can negatively impact mood. Try to keep in mind that depression has to do with what is lacking. If your teen is comfortable in social situations, feels as if he or she has choices in making his or her schedule, is not expected to work nonstop outside of school, feels a sense of contribution/ effectiveness/ mastery in some area of his or her life, and engages in activities he/she looks forward to, then he/she will be less likely to be depressed.
What could be more reinforcing for your teen? Try to think of reinforcement as something rewarding, enjoyable, energizing, or even peaceful. Don’t limit your thinking to only adding things, as the demands of having too many things can in and of itself be a problem. Balance is key. Consider how these simple things might really matter: Sleeping in, taking a long hot shower, watching a favorite TV show, hanging out, or interacting with a parent in way that feels appreciative or warm. Consider that finding happiness is not the key to treating depression; rather it is creating a life that is rich, full, balanced, and meaningful.
In addition to time management, scheduling, and navigating opportunities that are reinforcing, a parent might also want to consider key biological factors that really matter when it comes to managing mood. Consider your teenager’s sleep schedule. Is he or she getting enough sleep? Sometimes teens think they can overcome their biological limitations by staying up extremely late and thinking it doesn’t impact mood. Sleep should be a priority, because a lack of sleep often precipitates a big blowup, a heated argument, or other behavioral issues that are clearly difficult for parents. Is he or she getting adequate nutrition, eating at regular intervals, and relying on something besides caffeine, carbohydrates, and sugar for energy? French fries and Coca-Cola will not be adequate. Skipping breakfast or lunch doesn’t help either. Sometimes we like to attribute mood problems to conflict at home, problems with stress, or the demands of homework. However, taking some simple steps to increase pleasant experiences, take enough “breaks”, and manage biological factors can go a long way in treating adolescent depression.