Ask AF: How to Help Our Teen Through Depression?

"Our 17-year-old is experiencing depression and has been smoking pot. She told us she sees her depression as connected to adoption, which surprised us, because we've always talked openly about adoption. How can we help her?"

Q: Our 17-year-old daughter (adopted internationally as an infant) is experiencing depression and we found out she’s been smoking pot every day. She finally opened up to us about all of this several weeks ago. She sees her depression as connected to adoption and her self-described feelings of “self-loathing.” We were blindsided and devastated by this because we’ve always talked openly about adoption and we always considered our family bond very close and loving. We’ve been getting help for her, both with the mental health and substance use issues, but we’re worried. How common is a change in behavior like this? Is she testing us in some way? How can we help her work through these feelings?

A: Your daughter likely feels lost, alone, and scared. I respect and appreciate her courage in sharing with you her innermost thoughts and feelings. She may be concerned about disappointing or worrying you. Or she may be concerned that you’ll minimize her feelings, or pity her. What she’s told you thus far may be just the tip of the iceberg. The depth of her feelings of “self-loathing” may be difficult to understand and accept, especially because it’s such a drastic departure from who you knew her to be. It’s not uncommon for adoptive parents to see their teen as happy and content, and so to feel confused when they seem to become depressed and distant.

It would be helpful to explore with your teen when her depression began and how it evolved. It’s possible that her marijuana use was in response to her depression. Many teens use it to “self-medicate,” or numb emotional pain.

One of the most important ways that you can help is by having “connected conversations.” This is when the two of you have a conversation after which you each feel better and more connected. This can be incredibly powerful, but is easier said than done!

How do you convey support, empathy, and acceptance? A few tips:

  1. Focus completely on her feelings, not yours. Adoptive parents might say, “I love you,” or some variation, in conversations about personal matters. Of course, you want to comfort your child by letting her know that she’s loved. Unfortunately, this often doesn’t help, and will likely not result in a connected conversation. Why? Instead of feeling comforted, the teen may feel guilty that he or she is making life so hard for you. She might even question why it’s so easy for you to love her, when she’s struggling to love herself. Instead, it’s helpful to say something like, “It’s been hard to get through the day lately.”
  2. Make sure you talk less than your teen does! When parents become anxious, they sometimes talk more than usual. Try to keep that in check.
  3. Continue what your teen is saying. When adopted teens are struggling with mental health issues, it may be hard to just find the words. Even when they want to tell us, they can’t always figure out what to say or how to say it. When we continue their thought, we’re offering words to use, which can lead them to feel more empowered. For example, if your daughter says, “Sometimes I just hate my life…” you could add, “and, it can be really hard to do the things that you need to do.” Even if you’re a little bit off-base, it’s still worthwhile!
works with adoptive parents and adoptees through the life cycle in a private psychotherapy practice in Newton, Massachusetts, and speaks nationally about adoption, race, and parenting. In her professional work, she also draws on her personal experience as an adult transracial adoptee. Naftzger is the author of Parenting in the Eye of the Storm: The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Navigating the Teen Years. She leads online and local groups for adoptive parents. Learn more and join her mailing list at

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