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When Nothing Else Seems to Help

A brief primer on how to engage (and NOT engage) your depressed child when they seem ready to give up

sad woman sitting alone in a empty room

As a new parent, it can seem like your children have everything in front of them. We look back and reminisce, and it’s hard–SO HARD–to help them see how much potential and how many great things lie ahead.

Particularly if they are clinically depressed.

I have the benefit of having experienced clinical depression, and I know how wild and irresistable it can be.

When your child goes down this path, it sometimes seems like there is nothing you can do.

Talking seems to repel them, offering support elicits revulsion. They are distant and beligerant, defensive and guilt-ridden.

When no amount of prompting or probing can bear fruit, what do you do?

Looking back at my own life, there are a few things that made a difference in the positive or the negative. It is for this reason that I opted to take some time and share.

It is my sincere hope that this advice leads us all to a better path.

Clear space for sharing, don’t carve it out

DON’T push your child to be more vulnerable (until they are ready to come to you).
DO give your child space but let them know you are available in whatever capacity they want you.

A huge part of the stress reaction that comes from being depressed is a defense or survival mechanisms. We feel beset upon, so we tense up and withdraw.

To this day, I still pull myself back into my shell when I think I’ve done wrong, or feel like I’m being artificially assigned the blame for something I didn’t cause. It is one of the hardest reactions for me to fight, despite having grown up and mastered many skills that should be lightning on my shoulders.

It doesn’t take much for this kind of prompting to push me over the edge from sorrow and self-disgust to resentment and misplaced anger.

Take it slow and pave the way for disclosure. Be vulnerable, yourself, and let their mirror neurons latch on to that example–even if they have to process it for a while.

Make room for social support, don’t force it down their throat

DON’T visibly involve others in their problems without first consulting them.
DO let them feel the value of community and provide subtle opportunities for them to engage.

I don’t think anything ever set me off quite so handily as a teen as the time when my mom tried to insert solutions into my path (as if she knew better!).

There was one time when I showed up on my black motorcycle, black pants, black leather jacket, and black helmet to my grandma’s 80th birthday party.

Exciting news! She’s invited a date from their church to join me. At my grandma’s 80th birthday party.

The best first blind date, this party was not. She was cute. Really cute. But I was so out of sorts with this honest but incredibly misguided attempt to help that I forgot my cousin’s name during introductions. It was all downhill from that moment.

It goes without saying, but the same or more is true for bringing a therapist in without consulting your teen. If the child is younger, it’s your place to make this decision. But someone who isn’t ready for or doesnt’ want therapy will rail against this type of attention with all their being.

Seed their path with the things that make them happy

DON’T shower them with attention and gifts. The additional attention will embarrass and even shame them back into their shell.
DO slip small gifts into their path, things that they will appreciate but without the fuss of the gifting process.

Gifts for people with depression can be a really fine line. You don’t want your child to think you’re trying to buy back their happiness.

You can’t. They know it, and you know it.

A gift like this needs to be considerate, thoughtful, and clearly meant to help them work through these difficulties.

If you want, you can add a note or an inscription that helps them feel valued, understood, or even provides them with a pathway to help.

Find ways to ensure they feel belonging and self-worth

From the very start of childhood, children need to know that they belong. If they don’t, bad behavior results.

The same is true for our own worth. We refer a lot to self image or self esteem. The truth is that this is the narrative we tell ourselves and the lens through which we see ourselves every day.

That lens gets foggy so easily that it’s almost ridiculous. Especially for someone with depression.

Lend them your lens. And don’t do it with general flattery.

Get to know their true value, their true talents. Ask them questions (when you have the natural opening) and learn what they really seek to be good at.

If they aren’t good at it yet, help them access that talent and enhance it.

If they are good at it, help them find opportunities to use it and provide honest encouragement, including constructive criticism. Become an expert in their hobby and use that savvy to bolster their opinions about themselves.

I honestly believe that depression is partly a choice. We want to feel stupid, we want to believe we are bad at things, because when we feel awful it’s comfortable and even stimulating to wallow in that self pity.

Replace these endorphins with something better, and you will find that your teen accelerates out of this slump more quickly than you can imagine.

Don’t be afraid to get help, though. Just be sure it’s at the right time, the right place, and in the right way.

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