“Do you know why I chose to drink last night?” my teenage daughter asked me at the end of a long night that all parents wish they never have to experience.
“No, why?” I asked.
“Because I don’t want to feel,” she said.
I prayed. God, I don’t know what to do! You have to show me.
That morning was a defining moment. I knew my daughter was struggling emotionally, but until that comment, she had masked her pain, and I had no idea about the extent of her depression. The following months — and even years, as depression entered our home again with one of her brothers — were a learning curve for me.
As someone who has never experienced depression, I had to resist the urge to tell my daughter to “snap out of it” because it wasn’t just a matter of her being sad. Depression often involves a chemical imbalance that needs to be addressed medically. Though she was able to move to the other side of depression without medication, my son may need medication for much of his life.
In parenting a child with depression, I had to find the root of the issue. The symptoms may include acting out, withdrawing, engaging in risky behavior or anger. Certainly the symptoms have to be addressed and consequences for poor choices given, but I also had to be in tune when behaviors were really a cry for help and a way to communicate feelings that my teens couldn’t verbalize. So I had to do things like watch for evidence of cutting: scars or cuts on the inside of the arm, drops of blood on bed sheets or their always wearing long sleeves, even in hot weather.
A network of support becomes necessary when walking alongside a teen with depression. Our network included our pediatrician, a counselor, church youth leaders, our pastor and even the parents of my teens’ friends, who kept their eyes and ears open for alarming comments or behaviors.
My son had two friends who also communicated with me to help keep him safe from hurting himself. Still, a hospital stay in the mental health unit was needed on two occasions when he became a danger to himself. Through the experience, I learned that the nearest emergency room is the place to go immediately when there is a threat of self-harm.
I was grateful both of my teens were willing to talk to counselors, but I also know of teens who went kicking and screaming. One mom made her daughter, who was struggling with an eating disorder, go to counseling weekly. The teen refused to talk to the counselor for the first three sessions, so the counselor quietly waited with her. Finally during the fourth session, she opened up.
Dealing with my teens’ depression taught me to be a better listener. I learned to listen without correcting or fixing, or even making suggestions. Even though it was difficult with my “fix it” personality, I listened with empathy, responding with statements such as, “I’m sure that is hard,” “It must be so difficult to see things in such a dim light,” and “When your heart hurts, my heart hurts.” These kinds of responses provided an emotionally safe place for my teens to talk. Empathy speaks love and acceptance when someone desperately needs it.
As my teens struggled with depression, my own fears and insecurities came to the surface. I like to be in control, and there was little in my control when my children were dealing with emotional issues. I had to be careful not to take their choices personally, not to feel like a failure or make this about me or our family. They weren’t trying to embarrass me or “get back at me.” They were hurting teens who needed help.
Two years after our daughter’s year of depression, she told me, “Back then, there was a fire inside me. The school principal and people at church were just dismissive, essentially saying, ‘You’re making it smoky in here,’ but you and Dad tried to figure out what was causing the fire. I know it wasn’t easy, but I love you for that.”
Jill Savage is the founder and CEO of Hearts at Home and is the co-author of No More Perfect Kids.