Getting help

How to help teens with emotional distress: anxiety and depression

Getting help

How to help teens with emotional distress: anxiety and depression

Author: Doctor Frédéric Benoit, psychiatrist

For teens in emotional distress that is causing them to suffer and preventing them from functioning on a normal level, it’s important to contact a healthcare professional. A family doctor or psychotherapist can provide informed guidance on whether treatment may be necessary.

A proper medical assessment will allow your healthcare professional to recommend any of the following treatments:

  • Adopting various natural remedies, like improving lifestyle habits, to counteract teenage anxiety
  • Psychotherapy (in the case of a family conflict, for example)
  • Anxiety or depression medication for teens (particularly when there is a family history of psychological disorders)

What recognized psychotherapy treatments are often prescribed to teens?

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and its variations

This generally short-term treatment (10 or 15 sessions) consists of deconstructing thoughts that are at the heart of non-adjustive behaviour and replacing them with new associations to counteract the negative.

It helps teens learn to:
• take stock of a situation in various ways, in order to take a step back from their thoughts and emotions;
• reduce their anxiety through relaxation; and
• adopt behaviours that promote good mental health and well-being (sports, healthy sleeping habits, etc.).

Scientific studies conducted on depressed or anxious teens have shown that CBT is a particularly effective treatment.

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is another available option. A variation of CBT, ACT focuses on personal growth and helps you accept what is beyond your control.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), based on Buddhist principles such as self-compassion and meditation, encourages better control of one’s emotions and has proven to be successful in reducing stress and treating depression.

Systemic therapy

This type of therapy focuses on the relationships, both past and present, that the teen has with their family, with the ultimate goal of fostering a positive connection with loved ones. The family is invited to join in on certain sessions and, in doing so, obtain valuable information on the problems or disorder their teen is experiencing.

Existential-humanistic therapy, or supportive therapy

This approach is based on the notion that all humans inherently possess the necessary resources to take on life’s challenges. It focuses on supporting the individual going through a crisis situation and helping them find the answers they need. It is the therapy most commonly prescribed for teens.

Psychodynamic therapy

Heavily influenced by psychoanalysis, this approach has the teen sit down face to face with the psychotherapist to discuss personal and family history and learn how past experiences and relationships relate to current difficulties.

What medication is commonly prescribed to treat anxiety disorders or depression in teens?

When combined with psychotherapy, the following medication is recognized as an effective means to improve teens’ quality of life.


Used for years to treat depression and anxiety in teens, antidepressants help relieve symptoms by regulating the brain’s chemical balance.

Thus serving to:
• reduce negative emotions;
• improve memory and concentration; and
• relieve physical discomfort caused by anxiety, including headaches, digestive problems and muscular tension.


This type of medication is designed to reduce anxiety symptoms. More often prescribed to adults than teenagers, anxiolytics help reduce stress and promote adequate sleep. To avoid overdependence, they are generally prescribed for short-term use, while the individual waits for the positive benefits of antidepressants or psychotherapy to kick in. Certain types of medication, referred to as “hypnotics,” serve only to promote sleep, and have no effect on anxiety.

To learn more about treatment possibilities, don’t hesitate to talk to your family doctor. Other types of medication may also be recommended to address more agitated or aggressive behaviour or to treat other disorders, such as attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity or psychosis.


If a teen is in crisis and is acting aggressively or out of control,

go to your nearest emergency room or call Suicide Action at 1 866 277-3553. (Free, confidential service, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.)

See all resources

Need to talk about what you are going through with your teenager?

Contact Ligne Parents for free 24/7 professional support


BEN AMOR, Leila, et al. Troubles mentaux chez les enfants et les adolescents : Prévenir, repérer tôt, intervenir, Éditions CHU Sainte-Justine. Montreal, 2017.

GOUVERNEMENT DU QUÉBEC. Troubles anxieux. October 29, 2019. [Online]. (Accessed August 10, 2019.)

ORDRE DES PSYCHOLOGUES DU QUÉBEC. Les orientations théoriques, [Online], 2020. (Accessed August 10, 2020.).