Having a kid tell us that they’re struggling is really hard for a parent to hear. Whether we admit it or not, all of us have a ‘guilt reflex’ that kicks in, and starts blaming us for the problem (and it’s often right - but more on that in a moment).
The trouble is, that then means that we want to shut down the cause of the pain and discomfort and guilt we’re feeling, which often means that subtly or otherwise, we give our kids signals to shut up and go away. That only has to happen a few times, before our kids give up on telling us things that we may find upsetting, or letting us into their inner lives.
When this becomes the ‘norm’ for the parent / child relationship, it can cause so much destruction, loneliness and heartache.
But this happens to even the best of parents, sometimes.
The parental guilt reflex is very strong in most of us, because on some level, we know that we affect our kids’ wellbeing and happiness more than anything or anyone else.
So now, let’s take a deeper look at what’s really going on here, and see if we can come up with some useful guidelines for how to really help our depressed children.
Adults are adept at hiding their true feelings, especially in the west where emotions have been pathologised. That’s why sometimes, God uses our kids to send us messages about where we’re really holding that we often don’t want to look at, accept or consider.
So the first thing to check is: which parent might also be depressed, and why?
Once the parent starts working on their own emotional issues, the issues tend to clear up really fast in their kids, too.
2. Find out why the kid feels depressed
Again, this bit can be SO hard, because of the parental guilt reflex. If you feel you’re going to blow up at your kid, get hyper-defensive, feel anger or crippling guilt, then you may need to enlist someone with more objectivity and perspective to do this part of the process.
But people usually feel depressed because they feel that what they think and feel doesn’t count, or that they’re worthless, or that no-one really cares about them - which are all REALLY hard things for even the most caring parent to hear!
Yet giving the child a chance to express themselves truthfully - and to say even the icky things that no parent wants to hear - without being attacked or ‘punished’ for expressing themselves, is a crucial part of the healing process.
Most of us can’t handle that so well (especially if the guilt reflex is kicking in, and we feel on some level the kid may actually be right.)
But for the child’s own mental health, they need to be able to express themselves truthfully, in a loving, 100% accepting atmosphere. If the parent can’t provide that (and hey, that’s OK to admit) - then find a good counsellor or friend WHO IS NOT GOING TO PUSH YOUR KID DOWN THE ANTI-DEPRESSANT ROUTE.
That last part is crucial.
No chemical imbalance has ever been found to cause depression, or any other mental illness, despite it being such a popular ‘theory’ of psychiatrists (who make most of their income from their exclusive ability to prescribe psychotropic drugs for mental illnesses.)
When kids get pushed onto anti-depressants to ‘make their problems go away’, instead of being encouraged to really speak out what they truly feel, and to re-connect to their families, and to deal with their negative emotions in a productive way, it’s setting them up for a lifetime of worsening mental and physical health issues.
I’m including some research articles, plus one documentary (bottom link) that you may want to check out for yourself:
Negative Effects of Antidepressants | Mad in America
Depression Screening in Children is Not Supported by Research
Antidepressants Often Prescribed to Enforce Heteronormativity
Depression Pills Made Me Unfit To Be A Mother
3. Don’t feel you have to ‘fix’ the problem immediately
Oftentimes, we parents feel as though we have to try and ‘fix’ our kids issues, or even prevent them from having issues in the first place.
While it’s understandable and well-intended, this approach actually does far more damage than good. Life is full of issues, and ups and downs, and negative emotions, and less-than-ideal responses.
When we send our kids a message that they ‘can’t’ be depressed, or that they have huge issues if they feel down, or that their ‘brain is broken’ (i.e. they have a chemical imbalance), we’re piling on guilt, anxiety and worry onto an already crowded platform of negative feelings.
The truth is: we all feel depressed sometimes. That’s part of life.
If the parent is operating from their own guilt reflex, then even without realising it their main focus will be on getting the problem to ‘go away’ ASAP (which is why medication also sometimes looks so darned appealing). But especially with depression, that’s only going to make things worse.
Instead, if we encourage our kid (and ourselves), and we do the work to find out what’s really triggering it, and what ‘message’ we’re being given via our negative emotions and depression about what needs to be looked at, changed or improved in our lives, then we’re teaching our children a magnificent lesson in how to stay mentally and emotionally healthy over their lifetime.
People with depression need to be empowered, in some way, to stop feeling like helpless ‘victims’ of circumstance. A key way to do that is to help them figure out WHO or WHAT is causing them to feel that way in the first place, and then to figure out how that scenario can be changed or improved.
4. Make sure the physical side of things is covered
If your child isn’t exercising enough, not sleeping enough, not eating enough of the right sort of food (around their inevitable intake of junk food…) - then that can also seriously contribute to feeling depressed.
Again, the mirroring principle will probably kick in here again, and you may want to consider if the parents are also sleeping enough, eating right and getting enough exercise.
30 minutes of exercise, three times a week, is scientifically proven to be more effective at overcoming depression, permanently, than medications.
Vitamin B12 is also a biggy, for overcoming depression (and a bunch of other mental illnesses…)
Vitamin B12 Deficiency and Brain Health | Blog | Kelly Brogan MD
5. Like yourself
This bit is also really crucial, both because your kid is just your mirror, spiritually-speaking, and also because if you don’t like yourself, your guilt reflex will kick-in big time and will skew your parenting response in a way that’s very unhelpful to both you and your kid.
Tell yourself: “I am doing the best I can!”
Also accept that sometimes, that best really isn’t very good (and that’s true for all parents, even the best ones, because none of us are angels.)
When we parents like ourselves more, and we know that we really aren’t trying to hurt our kids on purpose, or mess them up (even though of course that’s happening a lot…), then we are much gentler and forgiving with ourselves - and also with our kids.
We’re in this process called ‘life’ together. The more we can see that we’re good, the more we’ll also see the good in our kids, which is probably the single biggest ‘key’ to ensuring their mental health and wellbeing.
Dear reader, you’re a great mum or dad!
We’re all down here to work on ourselves and to fix ourselves, and the parents who can admit that they’re flawed, and struggling, and (at least occasionally…) ‘wrong’ are the ones that paradoxically raise the happiest and healthiest kids.
My kids know I am a really rubbish parent in a myriad of ways. They also know that I try my best, and often fail. They also know that I really love them. They also know that I’m (occasionally…) selfish, self-absorbed, mean, lazy, clueless [fill in the blank].
When I can fix this stuff, I do.
When I can’t, I try to apologise, and ask God to help me fill in the bits that are missing (and believe me, there’s a lot).
So it’s crucial to like yourself so that you know that even if your kid needs to say something ‘icky’ to you, in order to clear things up and get back on an even keel, or even if there’s stuff that needs improving or fixing, or even if you yourself have been struggling emotionally, that you are still a great person, and it’s not the end of the world.
That’s the single biggest present you could give yourself, and your children.
TO SUM UP:
Check out my book: Causes and Cures of Depression