The Struggle is Real
It isn’t always easy to differentiate between normal teenage growing pains and depression. As a parent, you need to be prepared for dealing with problems both big and small. That includes taking care of your child’s mental health, this sometime means mustering all the patience and understanding you have left and then some. I know what you are thinking “I don’t have time for this, after all what could my child possible have to be depressed about.” “They have a wonderful life and I provide for their every need.”
When our children are young, we are always swooping in to rescue, protect, solving problems and guide them. As they get older and their problems become more complex, you have to transition into more of a supporting role, and that can be difficult. This is especially true with teens who are struggling with depression.
Where do you start as a parent? Start by listening, and I mean really listen to them without judgement, without making it about you, without listening to respond and without assuming you know what is wrong. That can be really hard to do as a parent, but it will be the most valuable thing you can do for your child.
Do not judge your child
Start by assuming they have a good reason for their actions and behaviors. Show them you respect their intelligence and are curious about the choices they have made. If you do not prejudge their behaviors as "stupid" or "wrong", they're more likely to open up and explain why their actions made sense to them.
Try not to assume you know what's wrong
Do not assume that you know what's wrong. Rather than asking "Are you being bullied?", try saying "I've been worried about you. You do not seem your usual self, and I wondered what's going on with you at the moment? Is there anything I can help with?"
Listen to hear
This needs more explaining, because if done properly can make the difference in your communication with your child. When talking with your child you want to make sure you are using reflective listening. In which you listen to really hear what they are saying, verses listening to respond. When you listen to respond you aren’t actually listening to what your child is saying, instead you are simply waiting for them to finish so you can respond.
When talking to your child, make sure there aren’t any distractions or interruptions. Your child needs emotional support, and you need to be their number one person. How can you manage to establish this kind of a firm base? Spend quality time with your child without distractions like electronics, TV, traffic, or even cooking dinner. Just you and your child.
- Encourage open and honest conversations
- Listen to what your child has to say
- Acknowledge their inner struggles
Showing support, without being pushy, can help you gain your child’s trust allowing them to talk about their problems and worries when they come up. One of the most common replies I hear from parents is “Oh he or she is just a typical child or teenager.” I know it is easy to pass off moodiness, irritability and isolation as “normal teenage behaviors.”
Teenagers go through various phases. There’s often a lot of mood swings and emotional episodes that comes with adolescence, and it can be hard to know when their behavior is a part of growing up and when it’s more serious. The first step towards helping your child battle depression is to learn how to spot it. Become familiar with the warning signs.
- Has your child been sad or irritable most of the day, most days in a week for at least two weeks?
- Has your child lost interest in things that she used to really enjoy?
- Has your child eating or sleeping habits changed?
- Does your child have very little energy, very little motivation to do much of anything?
- Is your child feeling worthless, hopeless about her future, or guilty about things that aren’t her fault?
- Have your child grades dropped, or is she finding it difficult to concentrate?
- Has your child had thoughts of suicide? If so, it’s crucial you have them evaluated by a mental health professional immediately. If the thoughts are really serious and there is imminent threat, you will need to take them to an ER.
If your child is experiencing 2 or more of these symptoms, they may need professional help.
One of the most important things you can do for your teen is to work on strengthening your relationship. Try to build empathy and understanding by putting yourself in their shoes. You might be frustrated that they seem down and irritable a lot of the time and doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything to help themselves. But if there isn’t much in their life that is making them happy, or something intensely disappointing has happened, it’s understandable for them to avoid things they used to enjoy and retreat to their room. Depression makes even doing the smallest things more difficult.
Some teens will want to go to therapy when you ask them and some won’t. For those who are resistant, know that they aren’t going to suddenly open up to the idea of therapy (or to you) quickly, but you can help guide them towards treatment by opening the door and then waiting patiently for them to walk through it.
Try saying, “I know you’re having a hard time, and I have some ideas of things that could help. If you’d like to talk with me about them, let me know. I’m here for you.” It’s also a good idea to ask your child if they have any suggestions on how you might be able to help them You might be surprised with what they have to say.
Be aware that your teen might tell you to back off. That’s fine; it’s their way — albeit a slightly irritable one — of telling you that they needs space. It’s normal for teenagers to want independence, and it’s important for you to respect that. You can respond by saying, “I’ll give you more space, but know that I’m here for you if you ever want to talk.”
If your child does come to you wanting help, be prepared. Do your research. Find two or three therapists they can interview and tell them that they can choose the one that they feels most comfortable with, and thinks will help the most. Finding a therapist who is a good fit is extremely important, and making the choice their will help them take ownership over their treatment, which is extremely important to teens and sets the stage for effective therapy.
Yashica Budde, MA, LMFT