Self-Help Strategies for Depressed Teens

Ways to Empower Your Teen to Feel Better

Self-help strategies for teen depression

Verywell / Jiaqi Zhou

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in 2020, 4.1 million teens between the ages of 12 and 17 experienced at least one episode of depression. For teens who have depression, professional treatment is important for recovery. However, there are also strategies that teens and parents can utilize to augment and support their treatment plan.

A comprehensive approach to helping depressed teens combines professional therapy and/or medication with self-help strategies. These self-help strategies can help to shift negative patterns and provide your teen with tools they can implement and explore on their own.

Self-Help Strategies Support Professional Treatment

Self-help strategies are not intended to replace professional treatment and are best utilized as tools to supplement therapy and/or medication by decreasing symptoms and empowering teens to feel better and more in control of their lives. First-line treatments for teen depression include medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of both. 

Helping your teen implement these strategies will give you a supportive role in your teen's life as well.


Medications for depression in teens include antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These medications block the reuptake of serotonin, increasing levels of the neurotransmitter in the brain.

It is important to note that all antidepressants carry an FDA black-box warning regarding an increased risk of suicidal thinking in children and young people under the age of 25. For this reason, antidepressant use is carefully monitored by both doctors and parents, especially during the first few weeks of treatment.


There are a few different types of therapy that are often used to help teens experiencing depression, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy (IPT).

  • CBT focuses on helping kids recognize and change the underlying negative thought patterns that contribute to depressive symptoms.
  • IPT helps teens with interpersonal relationships and improves communication in order to improve the quality of social relationships.

Self-Help Strategies for Depression

Lifestyle changes and self-help strategies play an important role in supplementing and supporting professional treatment. Helping incorporate these changes into your teen's life can help improve their symptoms in the present and may help them develop coping skills that will play a role in preventing future depressive episodes.

Exercise Often

Movement helps combat depression in a variety of ways. Being active helps release feel-good chemicals into the brain.

Participating in physical activity may help improve your teen's mood, and any type of movement can make a difference, whether it’s walking the dog, dancing in the shower, or skateboarding. Exercise also increases body temperature, which may produce a feeling of calmness, and help take your teen's mind off of their troubles. 

Research has found that exercise has a therapeutic impact on depression and may even play a part in preventing depression. One study found that regular exercise of any intensity provided protection against future episodes of depression.

Pay Attention to Nutrition

Food fuels the body and the mind. Some foods tend to make depression worse and some may make it better.

A study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition showed that people who habitually ate commercially baked goods and fast food were 51% more likely to develop depression than those who ate little or none.

For teens who thrive on junk food, adding more nutritious foods to their diet often makes a big difference in how they feel. If you need more information about how to implement a healthier diet, schedule a session with a nutritionist who works with teens, or search for related information in books and online.

Socialize and Find Support

Isolation leads to loneliness, which may lead to increased feelings of depression. Unfortunately, a common symptom of depression in teens is social withdrawal.

What often helps is to socialize and stay connected with others. A teen struggling with depression may need peers who will listen and lend their support. Sometimes other depressed teens are in the best position to do this, so consider an online support group specifically for depressed teens. 

Just be cautious of too much time spent online. A 2019 study published in the journal of JAMA Pediatrics found that for every additional hour young people spend on social media or watching television, the severity of depressive symptoms they experience rises.

Express Feelings

Pent-up feelings and emotions sometimes need to be discharged in healthy ways in order to combat depression. The process of doing so can also help identify some of the negative feelings that often go along with depression. Keep in mind, however, that if this becomes a habit it can ultimately lead to rumination, which can produce a more depressed, unhappy mood.

Healthy Ways to Vent

Healthy ways of venting may include activities such as:

  • Journaling
  • Singing along to music
  • Creating art
  • Exercising
  • Taking a break

Focus on Sleep Patterns

Sleep often plays a role in how a teen feels physically and emotionally. Track your teen's sleep patterns for a few days to get more information.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the ideal amount of sleep for teens is eight hours to ten hours each night. However, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that 69% of teens report getting 8 hours of sleep on school nights.

In cases where more, or less, sleep is needed, learn about the factors that impact sleep and consult a health professional if needed.

Avoid Drugs and Alcohol

When a teen doesn’t like how they feel or act, sometimes they experiment with drugs, including caffeine, in an effort to cope with their feelings. In most cases, your teen doesn’t realize they're self-medicating; they're just looking for ways to try to feel better. Teens who turn to alcohol and drugs usually make a bad situation worse. 

In some cases, marijuana use can contribute to the onset of psychosis, and teens have a higher risk of experiencing this adverse effect. Regular marijuana use can also affect brain development in teens and contribute to problems with cognition and learning.

If your child is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Have Fun

Experiencing joy and happiness in life is important. When depression gets in the way, efforts to focus on fun can make a difference. Try to get your teen to participate in activities that bring a sense of pleasure. Start by having them jot down a list of anything that is fun, silly, or creates a moment of joy, then try to include one of these in each day’s activities.

Depression Activities for Youth

Examples of activities that can help improve mood and boost positivity for teens include:

  • Making a playlist of their favorite upbeat, feel-good songs
  • Creating an art collage or posterboard with pictures, postcards, quotes, and other sources of inspiration
  • Spending time with friends
  • Exploring a new leisure activity such as hiking, swimming, or recreational sports
  • Starting or joining a book club
  • Outdoor activities such as walking, biking, gardening, or camping

A Word From Verywell

If you haven’t already, make it a priority to set up an appointment for your teen with an adolescent therapist. Mental health issues are usually very treatable, especially when there’s emotional support from a mental health professional as well as the teen's family. 

Taking steps to make sure your child is getting enough sleep, engaging in regular exercise, and eating a healthy diet are important places to start. Your teen may need encouragement and support, especially initially, since depression creates problems with motivation and low energy levels.

Keep supporting your child and work on helping them get the emotional validation and social support they need to thrive. As treatment progress, keep your eye on symptoms and watch for any potential warning signs of suicidal thinking.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Harvey SB, Øverland S, Hatch SL, Wessely S, Mykletun A, Hotopf M. Exercise and the Prevention of Depression: Results of the HUNT Cohort Study. Am J Psychiatry. 2018;175(1):28-36. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2017.16111223

  3. Sánchez-Villegas A, Toledo E, De Irala J, Ruiz-Canela M, Pla-Vidal J, Martínez-González MA. Fast-food and commercial baked goods consumption and the risk of depression. Public Health Nutr. 2012;15(3):424-32. doi:10.1017/S1368980011001856

  4. Boers E, Afzali MH, Newton N, Conrod P. Association of screen time and depression in adolescence. JAMA Pediatr. 2019. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.1759

  5. Consensus Conference Panel, Watson NF, Badr MS, et al. Recommended amount of sleep for a healthy adult: a joint consensus statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. 2015;11(06):591-592. doi:10.5664/jcsm.4758

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sleep duration and injury-related risk behaviors among high school students - United States, 2007-2013.

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Additional Reading

By Kathryn Rudlin, LCSW
Kathyrn Rudlin, LCSW, a writer and therapist in California specializes in counseling and education for teenagers with mothers who are emotionally disconnected.