Planning for Summer for a Teen With Depression

How do you plan a summer for a teen with depression?

Structure Without Pressure: Active, Busy, But Easy-Going

It’s hard to believe summer 2022 is almost here.

Every year it sneaks up on us. But every year we know it’s coming. Teachers wrap up their curriculum objectives, get in their final instructional time, and update all the grades and assignments on the virtual platforms for parents to see. Teens prepare for final exams, put the finishing touches on end-of-semester project, and gear up for summer.

Some teens will have summer jobs. Some will travel with family, And some will do as little as possible aside from hanging around with friends and avoid cleaning up their room. Others will take summer classes to make up for credit lost over the year, or catch up from time or credits lost during the pandemic. And some lucky teens will graduate, walk out of their high school for the last time, and walk toward college, work, and life as an adult.

If you’re a parent planning summer for your teenager, you know all this. You most likely have all your ducks in a row. And if you don’t, you know exactly what you need to do. But if your teen has a depressive disorder, has recently been diagnosed with a depressive disorder, or has recently entered or completed treatment for a depressive disorder, this summer might look a little different than summers past.

That brings us to this important question:

How do you plan summer for a teen with depression?

Reset, Recalibrate, Rejuvenate

The answer depends on your teen, of course.

The primary factors to consider are:

  1. How severe is their depression?
  2. Where are they in their treatment process?
  3. What do they want to do with their summer?

Let’s start with that first question, about severity. If your teen recently received a diagnosis for severe major depressive disorder (MDD) and the assessing mental health professional recommended immersive treatment in a residential treatment program (RTC), then the summer might be the perfect time to get them help.

In a residential treatment for depression, teens:

  • Engage in individual, group, and family therapy
  • Learn practical skills to manage the difficult, uncomfortable thoughts and feelings associated with depression
  • Take time to practice their new skills with peers in group therapy
  • Learn practical skills to manage stress
  • Take time to apply their new stress management skills to daily life – in the safe context of residential treatment
  • Learn how to live a lifestyle the helps reduce depressive symptoms. Lifestyle lessons/activities common in many residential treatment centers for depression include:
    • Healthy eating
    • Mindfulness
    • Daily activity/exercise
    • Hobbies like writing, music, and art
  • Learn the science behind depression and depression treatment.
  • Develop the self-confidence to get back home and participate in family, school, and social life

Teens with depression learn the same things when they participate in outpatient treatment, virtual outpatient treatment, intensive outpatient treatment (IOP), and partial hospitalization treatment (PHP). The main difference between residential treatment and less immersive levels of care is the intensity of the treatment experience. Teens with severe depression often need the immersion and intensity of IOP, PHP, or RTC programs. Teens with mild or moderate depression, however, often get all the support they need from less intensive levels of care.

Let’s talk about those teens now.

Outpatient Treatment, Virtual Outpatient Treatment, and an Active Schedule

If your teen receives a diagnosis for major depressive disorder and the assessing mental health professional recommends outpatient treatment, then make that treatment a priority for the summer. It’s important to understand that during outpatient treatment for depression, the treatment sessions are a small part, timewise, of the work of recovery. When your teen is in outpatient or virtual outpatient treatment for depression, they’ll have treatment homework to do. They’ll have skills to develop and apply. The good thing about summer is that they’ll have the opportunity to learn to manage the symptoms of their depression during a more relaxed time of year, compared to the nine to ten months that make up a typical school year.

That’s step one.

Therefore, if a therapist, psychiatrist, or other assessing professional recommends outpatient, virtual outpatient, or intensive outpatient treatment, then prioritize that – and base our guidelines for the rest of summer on that central task: treatment.

But, as we mentioned, the therapy itself is not very time-consuming, and even if a teen does their therapy homework every day – which should take an hour, maybe two at most – then they still have the rest of the summer to fill.

Here are our suggestions to help with that.

Summer of Recovery: Scheduling for a Teen with Depression

1. No Pressure

We put this first on the list to remind you, as a parent, that if your teen is in treatment, then treatment is the priority. If the things we suggest on this list overwhelm your teen, then back up and recalibrate. Everything here should support their treatment: if it adds pressure and stress, then ease up, back off, and let them focus on their sessions and the work their therapist assigns. That will be plenty to do – and that’s what they need.

2. Collaborate on a Schedule

With no pressure fully in mind, make a schedule that keeps your teen busy doing recovery friendly activities almost every day. By almost every day, we mean more days than not. Compared to the school year, a summer schedule should have a little more breathing room. For instance, if your teen is scheduled 8 hours a day, five days a week during the school year, cut that back to 3-4 hours a day, 4-5 days a week – and go from there.

3. Include Exercise

Activity and exercise – preferably outdoors – should happen every During the summer, try to make an organized physical pursuit part of the schedule you collaborate on with your teen. Here’s what we mean by that: while daily activity might mean walking, cycling, running, or working out at home, an organized physical pursuit might mean taking classes at a local gym. Any kind of group exercise class is great, from aerobics to cardio kickboxing to crossfit-type circuit training classes. And a traditional martial art – or boxing – would be even better.

4. Part-Time Work

If your teen is ready, willing, and able – and their therapist, counselor, and/or psychiatrist is on board – a summer job is a great idea. We recommend something fun and fulfilling, such as working with kids at a local summer camp of finding a job that aligns with a specific interest. In lieu of a job, we also think volunteering is a great idea. There are countless opportunities to volunteer, especially over the summer. If working with kids doesn’t appeal to your teen, they can explore adult literacy programs, helping at homeless shelters, food banks, or other community-based service activities that enable them learn more about the world and themselves while doing something that benefits the greater good.

5. Mindfulness

If your teen recently finished a residential treatment program for depression, then mindfulness activities might already be on their schedule. If they’re not, then this summer might be the perfect time to take a mindfulness meditation class, or learn a traditional mindfulness practice like yoga, chi kung, or tai chi. Yoga might already be on the schedule as an exercise-oriented recovery activity – and it’s great for getting in shape if you use it that way – but there’s a world of yoga-influence meditative practices out there waiting, if you teen is so inclined.

There’s a balancing act to walk, here. You want your teen to have a real summer. It needs to feel like a legitimate break from school. At the same time, you don’t want an unsupervised teen hanging around all day every day with nothing planned and nothing to do – although there should be some time when they have nothing planned and nothing to do, because that’s almost the very definition of summer. But that’s also where the balancing act lies. Your challenge is to create a way for a teen with depression to experience those long, endless-seeming summer days in a way that’s emotionally safe and doesn’t exacerbate their symptoms.

Build a Foundation for a Successful School Year

During the summer – unless they have catch-up work to do – it’s best for your teen not to think about school. It’s a break: they need time to reset, especially if this year was a challenge. As a parent, though, you need to think about next school year, and take the steps necessary to set your teen up for success when classes start again. We suggested the approach above for teens who need to prioritize healing, therapy, and treatment over most other things this summer. A flexible schedule that keeps your teen busy but not overwhelmed is an ideal way for them to have a recovery-oriented summer.

With that said, teens with mild depression may benefit from a more proactive approach to summer like the one we advocate in this pre-pandemic article:

Where is Your Teen Going This Summer?

Only if their therapist is on board, however. The same for the ideas in this next article, which wew mention briefly above. They’re good ideas for a teen, but for a teen with depression, we suggest complete support from your teen’s therapist:

Summer Volunteer Options for Teenagers

Finally, if you have a teen who does not have a clinically diagnosed depressive disorder, but is at-risk of engaging in problematic behavior, please read this article:

Summer Planning for a Troubled Teen

This can be a fun, fulfilling, and enriching summer for your teen – even if they have depression. You will play a big part in that, as a parent. You can create the conditions for your teen to learn, grow, and thrive in recovery. This summer, they can receive the exact level of treatment they need – you can leave that to the professionals – and they can get the exact amount of carefree relaxation they need – but that last part is up to you and your teen.

If you get together now and create a good plan – which you can change as needed – then the pressure’s off. Your teen can finish the school year strong, and you can both look forward to everything the next three months has to offer.

Finding Help: Resources

If you’re seeking treatment for your teen, please navigate to our page How to Find the Best Treatment Programs for Teens and download our helpful handbook, A Parent’s Guide to Mental Health Treatment for Teens.

In addition, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) is an excellent resource for locating licensed and qualified psychiatrists, therapists, and counselors in your area. Both the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness also provide and high-quality online resources, ready and waiting for you right now.