Wednesday, December 3, 2014

How to Help a Depressed Teen

A quick note to readers: This post reflects my experiences with depression, and may not be applicable to every case. If you feel your teen is in immediate danger of committing suicide, contact law enforcement or your health care provider and let them know.  

Depression IS a disease, and like any disease, it claims its due. The information in this article is to help parents prevent teen suicide. Please understand, however, that sometimes there really was nothing more you could have done. If you are the parent of a teen who has committed suicide, it doesn't mean you have failed-as a parent, and as a person. I share these thoughts with you in the hope that they, and your personal experiences, will help you reach out to others in your community.
Earlier this year, a friend of mine lost his nineteen year old son to depression and suicide.

I look at my children, now entering those difficult teenage years, and like so many parents, I am afraid. I am afraid of what these years are going to bring us. No one should ever have to bury a child. I can only imagine that family’s pain and loss.

I can, however, understand, intimately, the pain his son felt in those final days before he took his own life. Depression has been an enemy I have fought for what feels like my whole life, and it’s an enemy that too few people ever truly understand. Because it’s sneaky. Like diabetes, it’s chronic-some days will be better than others, but you’re never truly “cured”. It’s always sitting in the wings, waiting. Perched to pounce the minute you make a mistake, or have a bad day, or start feeling overwhelmed.

I can’t bring the Fiorellas’ son back, although I desperately wish that I could. I wish that I could look that young man in the face and be able to tell him, I understand. I’ve been there. I know this road you’re walking.

You’re right-you’re never going to get off this road. You’re never going to be the carefree person that you want to be. You’re never going to see life through the same lenses your friends do, no matter how hard you try.

But if you’re willing to fight, if you’re willing to reach out, it can get better.

Because I can’t do that, I want to share the lessons I’ve learned through a lifetime of depression with other parents like Sam. Like myself. Parents who watch their teens grow and wonder what they’re going to do if the black spectre of depression comes to claim them. Parents of teens with depression who feel helpless to bring their children out of the hell they’ve made their home.

Parents, you CAN help. But before you can help, you need to understand.

Understand that your child needs you to listen, not talk. As parents, we want to share our life experiences with our children. We hope through our experiences, they’ll be spared from learning some lessons the hard way. But your child with depression isn’t walking the same road you did. They need to be able to share THEIR road with YOU.

Understand that your child needs to be freed from your expectations for them. People with depression believe one of two things: Failure is inevitable, or failure is unacceptable. Either way, they feel shoehorned into a position where they have no right to be human. To try new things. To make mistakes. To them, criticism and encouragement are fatal in equal measure, because both make them feel as though they have failed in being themselves.

Understand that right now, they are incapable of being happy. It’s not that they’re choosing to be morose and dramatic. It’s not that they’re choosing to be critical or miserable or apathetic. Their minds are choosing it for them. The person who is severely depressed feels apathetic on their best days and like they’re going to fall apart on their worst. Which is why they need you to…

Understand that their feelings need to be validated. It’s too easy to look at their lives and think, “What do you have to be depressed about? You’re a kid. This is the best time of your life!” They know that. They understand, through the message you send, that they are expected to be happy and carefree. And so that’s the face they put on, for your benefit, for their friends, for their teachers. Then they leave you swinging in the wind when they explode, having bottled their feelings up to the point where they literally cannot take it anymore. 

If your child is angry, let them be angry, even if what they’re angry about seems ridiculous to you. (I once sat and cried for an hour because I couldn’t get a sweater to stay on a hanger.) If they are sad, let them be sad.

Understand that depression is as insidious as cancer…but no one judges a cancer patient for getting chemo. Depression, and other mental illnesses, still carry too much stigma. For a period of time in my twenties, I was on antidepressants following a major breakdown. I told no one I was going to the doctor, didn’t even tell my husband I was on antidepressants until months later. 

It was too embarrassing to admit that I needed help to get through the day. I was humiliated that I was carrying so many fewer burdens than people I knew, and I still couldn’t handle it. People with depression are embarrassed and scared to ask for help. They need you to encourage them to seek medical care.

Understand that people with depression feel isolated. They feel like no one understands them. Watch out for teens who appear to be “good listeners”, always listening to their friends and family and sharing little about their own lives. Beware if it seems as though your teen is always deflecting the conversation away from themselves. It may not be because they’re shy, or modest. It may be because they don’t see the point. No one is going to care anyway.

Understand that “I don’t understand what’s wrong with you!” is the worst thing you can say to a teen with depression. To anyone with depression.  Especially when it’s followed up with bits of parental wisdom like, “You’re a kid! What do you have to worry about?” Or, “You have a roof over your head, food on your plate. You have a thousand dollar computer. You have everything!” This will only push them away.

Understand that teens with depression need to take things day to day-sometimes minute by minute. Long term planning may literally be too much for them. Big projects are overwhelming-to this day I still have to break my to-do lists into teeny tiny micropieces that don’t take more than a few minutes each, then write them down so I can check them off in order to feel like I’m accomplishing something, even if that something barely scratches the surface.

The severely depressed may need help walking through their tasks one at a time, and learning that what they’re doing right then is the only thing they need to think about. Multi-step instructions like get out of bed, take a shower, eat breakfast, brush your teeth and get on the bus may seem overwhelming. Cleaning their entire room may literally be more than they can handle. (Especially if it looks anything like mine used to.)

Be willing to be flexible. Let chores wait until another day if they have a lot of homework. Help them with tasks that are usually their responsibility if you see them struggling. I promise you, they need the helping hand more than they need the reminder of what their responsibilities are.

Understand that your teen has to know they can come to you. Pushing someone with depression to talk about their depression leaves them feeling trapped. Not pushing them, on the other hand, can leave them feeling like you don’t really care. It’s a lose-lose situation….but it doesn’t have to be.

If you have a teen who suffers from depression, it’s up to you to open the door. Spend time with them alone, in a low stress environment. Encourage non-specific conversation about their lives, and ask them questions that make them know they’re the center of your attention. I know it’s almost instinctive, as parents, to remind teens that the world doesn’t revolve around them, but the teen with depression sometimes needs to feel like it does. “What do you want?” is a big one-often people who are living with depression are too wrapped up in day to day survival to worry about the future.

It can be hard, at times, to feel like they have one.  

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