The change in my daughter’s voice was a jolt to my heart. Previously marked by joy and excitement, her voice was now void of emotion. She was struggling with more than sadness. She was experiencing full blown depression. Something needed to be done. I wondered, “How I can I help her overcome anxiety and depression?”
Maybe, like me, you have experienced a similar emotional shift in your kids. They may have moved from worry, stress, or fear to anxiety or gone from grief to depression. Perhaps your kids’ friends are going through mental health struggles too.
Unfortunately, anxiety and depression affect an ever growing population of kids and families today. When we understand how to best approach our kids and their swirling emotions, we will be more effective in helping them overcome anxiety or depression.
Approaching Your Kids
One way we can help our children overcome anxiety or depression is to have an awareness of the variety of pressures kids today face. The stressors come in many forms: social interactions and hierarchy, academic accomplishment, artistic endeavors, athletic prowess, or an attractive appearance.
Whether the stress is external (parental or others’ expectations) or internal (personal expectations), these pressures can quickly build up and overwhelm our kids. So, it is up to mom and dad, to avoid placing unnecessary and unrealistic pressure on our children.
Focus on strengthening your relationship to cultivate trust between you and your child. Model how to ask for help and to be a helper. There is no shame in needing help (it is a human condition after all) and there is honor in being a helper. This may sound simple, but the Lord created us for relationship; to give help and receive help.
Rather than piling on tasks and additional responsibilities, look for areas where you and your child can support and serve each other. Everyday ways to reinforce the idea of interdependence could include participating in household chores or doing homework together. Bigger ways to reinforce a mutually helping relationship could include being a sounding board for a big decision or major life-transition.
Assess your child’s social media interactions and habits. It’s no secret that relationships can have a critical impact on your child’s ability to navigate anxiety and depression. But be sure that social media isn’t your child’s only source of social interaction. Guide your child toward interactions and relationships outside of social media through establishing face-to-face interactions, intentional family time, and meaningful adventures.
Primary Stressors when Overcoming Anxiety and Depression
Unfortunately, in my daughter’s tween years, I added to the stress she put on herself to be thin (for the record she was thin). I thought I was being helpful when I said, “You look fine. Just be healthy and eat and exercise like your sister.” Not only did I discount her concern, I tossed in some comparison too. This was a big mom fail. Looking back, I should have listened to her worry and help her come up with a healthy plan for diet and exercise.
For every family, there are unique stressors that can negatively impact your child’s ability to overcome anxiety or depression. In your role as a parent, think about what areas of your child’s life, either external or internal, might be adding unnecessary stress. Consider how you can help your children alleviate these pressures.
One of the more difficult cultural lies to debunk is that we are always supposed to be happy. For our kids, this happy expectation can quickly worm its way into their minds. Not only do they believe they must feel happy all the time, but they also believe they must experience an exciting adventure filled life, everyday!
In a world where they are constantly moving from one thing to the next, one goal seems to be boredom avoidance. Social media impacts our kids’ perception that life must always be happy and exciting. None of us wants to see our kids go through struggles yet those experiences will build resiliency and perseverance while strengthening problem solving skills and increasing empathy. There is hope.
Hardship and heartache are temporary experiences. Let them know, it’s OK to not be OK. Communicate that they are valuable, and their emotions can be important indicators of a problem to be solved. We can effectively guide our children toward cultivating hope despite the stress they might face.
At any age, school can provide an overwhelming amount of stress. For those with younger kids, make sure that you are not overworking your children and creating unrealistic expectations for their intellectual development. Similarly, with older kids, focus on those major transitions. Such as: middle school to high school and high school to college. Do your best to shift focus away from strictly academic performance and toward personal development and relationships.
While grades are certainly important and worthy of attention, hyper-focus from a parent can unintentionally damage a child’s confidence and even increase anxiety or depression.
Take some time to reflect on your involvement with your child’s academic performance. Are there any areas where you can redirect your attention to encouragement, help, and positivity? Also, maintain consistent communication with your children’s teachers for added insight into any classroom situations.
As our world continues its reliance upon the internet, we need to be aware of how we can support our kids in an online culture. With some kids, social media may be their only form of social interaction. Certain habits, like excessive screen time, can negatively impact our children.
Social media only provides glimpses into someone else’s reality. For our kids, this can lead to difficulty in filtering the difference between reality and fantasy. While they scroll edited pictures and posts, they likely only see only a slice of someone’s life or story. This has potential to be the catalyst for our kids to develop FOMO (the fear of missing out) or feelings of being “less than.”
As our children battle comparison, there is a chance they could move from those normal feelings of disappointment to depression or typical stress to anxiety. We can help our children fight the comparison battle. Talk with them about how and why people post things on social media. Discuss perception is not reality. Talk about how social media is used to project an image, yet that image is one dimensional. Ask them, “What image do you think this person is hoping to project?”
We can guide our kids to effectively navigate and discern the social media world. The simple reduction of time spent on social media typically has positive results. By having these conversations, we can guide our kids in ways to avoid detrimental comparison and maintain appropriate online boundaries.
Avoiding Hope Killers
Our words can speak hope and life. But they can also speak defeat and hopelessness. Whether you think they do or not, your kids listen to you. They carefully observe your responses to their questions, thoughts, and dreams. We have a choice, to build up, or tear down. Hope Killer statements can sounds like these:
- “Your brother spends more times studying. If you did that too your grades could be as good as his.”
- “Have you seen the way Jack is so polite and helpful to his mom? I wish you could be like that.
- “Don’t worry about this so much. Just eat healthy and exercise, like your sister does.”
Avoid comparison statements like these. Instead, stir confidence in your children with affirming words. When your kids express feelings of sadness or worry—listen, reflect, and empathize. Acknowledge sadness or worry are normal human emotions. But be wise and remain alert for prolonged periods of deep grief or stress. This might be a sign of deeper issues like anxiety or depression.
Help your children dissect their personal expectations and fears. Ask key questions, “What are your goals or expectations? Are they challenging yet realistic?” “Is your fear likely to occur? Even if your fear comes to fruition, you can still_____.” This will provide you some insight into their heart and mind while giving your kids tools to evaluate their personal perspective. Point them toward God’s comforting truth: God is good, and the world is hard. But God is still good.
Strategies for Overcoming Anxiety and Depression
I admit, I am not perfect at helping my children overcome anxiety or depression. And that’s OK. You won’t be perfect either. But God can still use you and me to help our kids during troubled times. The Lord will provide opportunities for healthy relational interdependence and personal growth for families in the messy journeys of life. By applying some of these strategies listed below you will be able to be used by God to help your child overcome depression and anxiety.
Be aware of how your child thinks and feels. Do your best to not brush off or disregard things they say or how they feel. Times of sadness and grief are normal. Extended periods of deep grief could be a red flag.
You are the expert on your children. Observe their behavior and mood swings to assess whether an emotion might be lingering longer than normal. Pay attention to any changes in routine or habits, look for patterns of withdrawal and isolation.
Through my daughter’s struggle, I discovered two primary questions to help my children learn to overcome depression and anxiety.
The first question narrows the scope. Instead of asking your child: “How are you doing?” Add one extra word. Ask your child: “How are you doing today?”
The addition of the word today communicates you really want to know how they are plus the focus is fine tuned to their immediate or recent emotional state. The word today prevents getting the typical general response of, “Ok. Fine.”
If you feel concern that your child has fallen into depression, this next question is a critical yet scary one for parents to verbalize. Be brave, ask it, it could save your child’s life, “Have you considered taking your life?”
It is horrifying to say this out loud. Yet asking it opens the door for the hard conversation. Your child knows you can handle the answer and it shifts the responsibility for the conversation to the parent. Once asked, vulnerability, honesty, and problem solving can enter the dialogue. If the conversation does take a turn toward topics such as suicide or suicidal ideation, consider consulting professional help or additional resources, such as Alive to Thrive.
Focus on their Feelings
One of the keys to maintaining and building trust with your child is to focus on their feelings. When they begin to share or open up, ensure that they feel heard. Listen and ask questions before providing advice or guidance.
Keep the conversation focused on them and their present struggle. Avoid being a historian and bringing up negative things that occurred when they were younger. Like, “You always get so upset about being left out. I remember when you were….” Keep the conversation in the present tense.
Also, to remain in the present and child-focused, be wise with the use of empathy. While it is important to normalize and empathize, “I recall a time when I ….” this connection technique must be used with discretion and brevity. Focus on your children and their struggle.
Final Thoughts on Overcoming Anxiety and Depression
Our kids need to know they are loved, worthy, valued and created on purpose for a purpose. Their difficulty in overcoming anxiety or depression does not define them. Their worth is found, not in the struggle but in their identity as a child of God.
If you would like to talk to someone further about your child’s depression or anxiety, or need help finding a counselor in your area, Focus on the Family offers a one-time complimentary consultation from a Christian perspective. You can reach a counselor at 1-855-771-HELP (4357).