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What to Do When a Teen Expresses Hopelessness

Teens often focus on the immediate. What do we do when all they see is dark?

Key points

  • Youth are vulnerable to feelings of hopelessness, as they often have less life experiences to go off of.
  • Listening to understand, encouraging interests, and showing trust are ways to inspirit a teen.
  • If an adolescent shows signs of depression or thoughts of suicide, get them help immediately.

Working with adolescents experiencing hopelessness is one of the most precious and troubling experiences I have had as a therapist. There is so much at stake. Yet, watching a young person who once grappled with despair blossom is distinctively beautiful.

The teen years are, for many, some of the most turbulent, vibrant, and painful of our lives. We experiment with all kinds of things, from hairstyles to relationships. Friendships are lifelines that can be, unfortunately, unstable. It's tough out there. Understandably, parents might not know where to start when a youth makes comments expressing despair or otherwise shows signs of depression.

Adolescents living with depression face unique challenges compared to other age groups. While adults may have had life experiences involving many ups and downs, youth with depression may be facing darkness for the first time. A week can feel like an eternity. It's natural for them to wonder if it's even possible to feel better. While an adult might be able to reflect on prior difficult times and what's made them resilient, this is harder for teens.

Adolescence is also a time of rapid brain development, especially in the prefrontal cortex areas, which are vital to decision-making. It's no secret that teens are impulsive. The combination of a short-sighted focus and impulsivity puts adolescents experiencing depression at especially high risk of acting in the heat of the moment, contributing to the tragic truth that suicide is among the leading causes of death for adolescents (Martinez-Ales et al., 2020), with rates increasing since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Signs of hopelessness and depression in youth can include making negative comments about themselves/their future, withdrawing to their room, quitting activities they used to love, losing/gaining weight quickly, changes in sleep patterns, and substance use. These are worrying signs.

So, how can adults inspire hope in a youth who is struggling to see a possibility for a brighter future? What follows are five thoughts.

1. Listen to Understand

Youths experience a lot of being told what to do. Even a question is, in a sense, a command. Adolescent voices are overridden by adults who "know better" or otherwise have more power than they do. Listening to understand isn't just about listening on the bad days (although that's part of it), but showing the teen that their thoughts matter without outward dismissal.

2. Encourage Interests

Withdrawal from enjoyed activities is a hallmark of depression. Engagement in a passion is a sign of hope. It's common for teens to try out different interests ranging from video games to parkour. Whatever it is, take note. Even if it is not something that will earn the kid a scholarship or that they are likely to continue, these joys and adventures are essential to growth. When a teen is depressed, sometimes adults must encourage interest in a much more active way. This might mean scheduling times to do things together that the teen has enjoyed in the past and thanking them for following through.

3. Set Up Things to Look Forward to in the Short-Term

Adolescents are typically most focused on the next few days. Looking forward to a vacation in a couple of months might not be as strong in the mind of a teenager as for an adult. See if you can set up small things for the teen to look forward to each week. This could be a plan for ice cream, writing on the calendar the date of an upcoming eclipse and taking some time each week to make plans for viewing it, or scheduling lessons in an area of interest each week. While it might seem small, it can mean a lot.

4. Show the Ways That You Trust in the Teen

While worrying is natural for someone we care about, teens are sometimes off-put when adults express concerns. They may be less off-put when adults ask for their input on something like the color to paint a wall or show interest in a piece of art they are making. Look for small ways to highlight the adolescent's competence and communicate that you recognize them.

5. Get Help for Your Adolescent If Needed

If your teen is showing signs of depression, getting help from a mental health professional is essential. Depression is a complex biological, psychological, and social condition. It's no one's fault. Arranging psychotherapy and/or a visit with the youth's doctor can be lifesaving for a teen experiencing significant depression. If an adolescent is having thoughts of suicide, immediate help from a mental health professional is imperative.

In Conclusion

It is troubling for parents and other adults in a teen's life to watch them struggling to find hope. Even having the concern to want to intervene is a start. It is possible to encourage hope in adolescents.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Martinez-Ales, G., Hernandez-Calle, D., Khauli, N., & Keyes, K. M. (2020). Why are suicide rates increasing in the United States? Towards a multilevel reimagination of suicide prevention. Behavioral Neurobiology of Suicide and Self Harm, 1-23.

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