Pediatric Depression and Parents

Susan D. Swick, MD, and Michael S. Jellinek, MD

January 12, 2022

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 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 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.


Vigorous exercise (for 20 minutes three times weekly) is as effective as SSRIs in treating mild to moderate depression. Even in severe depression, exercise may accelerate recovery and certainly contributes to returning to restful sleep and a feeling of improved energy. Inviting their depressed teens to join them on a trip to the gym may seem like a fool's errand to parents, but they should prioritize getting their children moving. Don't offer choices or ask what activity they would like to do. Most invitations will be met with "no, thanks" (or probably something less polite). Instead, initiate simple activities and then cajole the children with "let's go!" They should use loving persistence to get them out the door. Parents are the experts on their children and will know if there is an activity that they are more likely to enjoy. Make any activities group ones, easy to start and not too long. They could initiate family walks or bike rides in their neighborhood. If it helps, they can blame you, "these are doctor's orders!" This approach of warm persistence should be applied across the board, helping their depressed teens participate in mealtimes and other activities. Prepare parents that this can feel unnatural, if they have been letting their healthy teenagers have more space and independence and less time in family activities.

Social Connections

Behavioral activation includes keeping a depressed teen engaged in social activities. Friendships are a potent motivator in the lives of healthy adolescents. If depressed teens can stay connected to close friends, it is a powerful force for recovery. Find out if their friends know about their depression, whom do they trust to tell about it? Help them find comfortable language to speak about their depression with trusted friends. Parents can use their behavioral activation strategies to prompt their teenagers to participate in social activities. If texting, video chatting, or social media platforms are how they stay connected with close friends, support their use of these platforms. But be mindful that social media promotes social comparison over connection, and depression sets them up to feel less than others even without assistance. Parents should support real time with their friends in small groups, for short periods during the time of day when they have the most energy.


Suicide is the second leading cause of death for adolescents in the United States, and the rate of attempted and completed suicide in adolescents has been steadily climbing over the past decade according to the CDC. The rate is higher in older adolescents, though thankfully relatively uncommon (about 1 in 10,000 a year), and, although we know risk factors, no one has been able to predict reliably the risk for an individual teenager at a point in time. In a clinically referred sample, 85% of depressed adolescents will have suicidal ideation and 32% will make a suicide attempt. The risk is higher in those adolescents with more than one psychiatric diagnosis and with a history of impulsive behaviors, substance abuse, prior suicide attempts, and a family history of suicide. It is important that parents hear that asking about suicidal thoughts will not cause them. On the contrary, preserving open communication and a warm relationship is very protective. Adolescent suicide attempts are likely to be impulsive, so helping the family to consider ways to "put up obstacles" that would slow down any possible attempt is an effective way to improve safety. Ask your patients about suicidal thoughts, plans, and what keeps them safe. Find out if they worry about sharing these thoughts with their parents and why. Ask if there are ways their parents can check on them that "aren't too annoying." Determine if there are guns in the home, and if so, are they safely stored (locked, separate from ammunition)? More than 50% of completed adolescent suicides involve firearms, so this question is critical. What about access to medications that could be dangerous in overdose in your home or a relative's home they may visit? Discussing these facts with your patients and their parents together will make it easier for them to continue the conversation outside of your office and can make an enormous difference in their recovery.

Swick is physician in chief at Ohana, Center for Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health, Community Hospital of the Monterey (Calif.) Peninsula. Jellinek is professor emeritus of psychiatry and pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Boston. Email them at


p>Kovacs M et al. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 1993 Jan;32(1):8-20.


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