I've lived with family members with depression for several decades. One of my babies suffers from depression, as does my husband. It's real. It's painful. It’s sad. And it really stinks that they have to live with it!
Since I do not struggle with depression, myself, I had a lot to learn about parenting a teen with depression. It wasn't easy. It was like building the plane while flying it – scary and dangerous.
From experience, I know that when depression rears its ugly head, it doesn't last forever. With effort, it always passes. At least, so far it has – thankfully!
But while it’s happening, my baby doesn’t know for sure that it will pass. She's afraid its going to last forever. And her fear just compounds the depression. It's a vicious cycle.
That's the thing about a depression -- when you're in it, it feels like it is a permanent state. Once it starts to cast its pall over a life, it’s hard to believe that it will ever end, and even harder to muster the energy to fight it.
Perhaps that's the hardest part – that depression rarely goes away on it's own. You have to chase it away. You have to wear it down. You have to be stronger, smarter and more powerful than it. And that's hard to want to do when you're feeling hopeless that you can make a difference.
Talk about a vicious cycle!
Depression is Like Stepping in Dog Poop
Yes, it's true. Depression is a lot like stepping in dog poop. If you address it, you can manage a poopy situation and eventually come out clean; if you ignore it, it's destructive powers are profound and pervasive.
Even if you know it's in the area, dog poop always seems to come as a surprise when it shows up on the bottom of your shoe. As it enters the crevices of the shoe's soul, you know you've got to get rid of it. You consider your options. It's so gross you might even consider trashing the shoe. But with time and effort, all traces eventually can be eradicated. You can get rid of the poop.
But if you deny that you stepped in poop – the smelly, stinky mess on the bottom of your shoe will wreak havoc on everything it encounters. You'll track it through the house, and the stench will announce its presence even if you try to hide it. Eventually, it will fester and consume the shoe until you have no choice but to throw it away.
So, too, is the case with depression.
When you recognize the signs that depression is in the house, sometimes you can avoid a full-blown episode with preventive measures (much like stepping around the poop). Other times, if you address it quickly and with determination, you can minimize its impact and its duration.
Acceptance, awareness, and early intervention are keys to success.
Steps to Effectively Parent a Teen with Depression
To parent a teen with depression, you walk a delicate line. You have to be vigilant in keeping an eye out for warning signs, without going into a panic every time someone has a bad day. Because even typical teenagers have bad days.
The difference is that, when depression sets in, even good days feel like bad days. So here are 6 key tips to set the stage for getting a handle on living with depression with a teen (or an adult).
Tips When Parenting a Teen with Depression:
- Let your child know s/he's not alone – ever! This cannot be overstated. People with depression need to know that they are loved, and that they are not alone in their struggle. Self-harm lives in isolation, and the risks to life and limb are very real. There is safety in numbers and connection.
- Raise your child's awareness about depression. Your child needs to understand the chemical nature of depression even more than you do because s/he can't really learn to manage something without understanding it. Media messages just make it worse, and If you're worried about the 'stigma', keep this in mind: your child is going to know that something is wrong. If you don't share information about depression, s/he's likely to think s/he's going crazy. S/he's not. Depression is a chemical imbalance that can be treated.
- Get clear on the warning signs. More often than not, severe bouts of depression come on gradually. Help your child begin to look for and recognize the signs when things start to feel 'off'. Because depression is chemically based, early intervention is powerfully effective in turning the tide. For example, attention to exercise and sleep can actually prevent the onset of a depressive event for some people.
- Identify strategies that work to fight it – and Fight like a Champion! Together with your child, figure out what helps. Nutrition? Sleep? Exercise (gently if you’re not eating well, or strenuously if you’re otherwise well)? Laughing? Time with friends? Family? Journaling? Therapy? Community Service? Take the dog to the park? Go out and get yourself a delicious pie? Visit a friend? Go to a museum? Work on a creative project? While its ideal to do this assessment during times without serious depression, that's not always an option. So think about what helps, baby step by baby step. And then … fight, baby, fight. Do not take this sitting down!
- Shed light on it when it shows up. I cannot stress this enough: do NOT deny that depression is happening. Do not sweep it under the rug or pretend it doesn't exist. When depression is on the upswing (or downswing, actually) -- it shies away from bright light. So meet it at the door with a spotlight and let it know from the start that you are a formidable opponent.
- Show compassion for how hard it is. Seriously, living with depression is like waking up in a vat of molasses and having to make your way to the side, get yourself out of it, clean off, and then function normally as if you didn't wake up in a vat of molasses. Can you imagine how hard that would be to do everyday? It's exhausting. Sometimes it's all someone can do just to eat or brush their teeth. Let your child know that you recognize the Herculean effort involved with getting up in the morning and facing the world at school every day. Celebrate the achievement of putting dishes in the dishwasher (or even the sink). And (back to #1 above), remember that misery loves company. When you show compassion, your child will not feel alone.
You Can Do This!
As my baby said to me once, "It's not that I'm sad when things are going badly. It's hardest when I feel sad for no good reason."
So remember, mom or dad, you have a powerfully important job when parenting a teen with depression. You've gotta take care of yourself, and you've gotta help your kid learn to take care of herself. Depression has to be consciously managed over the course of a lifetime. Once you accept that, and own it, you can do an awesome job in fighting it.
And one more thing.
You're not alone, either. Not ever.