Dealing with Depression as a Family

In this blog series I am interviewing a family concerning their daughter who is struggling with depression and anxiety related to all they have learned in our discussions and from Influential Parenting.

Depression is always challenging since depression is a very internal thing. It is something I struggled with for about 18 months after losing a company. When I struggled, there was a wound that people couldn’t see and couldn’t perceive. There were times I felt completely alone because no one understood what I was going through, which actually served to make my depression worse.

Amy, you’ve struggled with depression. Describe it for our readers.

Amy (age 14) Shares About Depression

It’s a lot of hopelessness, a lot of not eating and not wanting to get out of bed. It’s a lack of social interaction. Overall it is not even having the energy to do a lot of everyday things that most people are able to do.

Mom and Dad, from your perspective, when you started encountering depression what did you notice? What was different?

Jo Anne Looks Back to when it Began

Well, it started when Amy went into middle school. I think what I did as I saw some changes was listen to other parents and hit the internet. I found that middle school was supposed to be a transitional time; kids will be changing and they’ll be moody. I just said, this is it. She’s moody. She’s changing. Instead of shutting off the Internet and putting down the books and talking with my daughter and asking her questions, I made a lot of assumptions. I missed the clues about what was really happening to my dear daughter whom I loved and would do anything for. I missed her depression.

What were some of the things you missed as a parent?

I missed why she was laying in bed. What I saw as becoming lazy was a symptom of her lack of energy and motivation. I had the whole checklist down from what I read. I said, yes, she’s doing this, this, and this. I’ve got a normal child; that’s how I missed her depression. The checklist wasn’t very helpful; it was devastating to me. It deceived me because I wanted to be a supermom.

I was ready for the next phase, adolescence. I had prepared for it. But, instead of spending time to really know my child, I was checking off a list because I wanted to do the best job I could. I missed listening, understanding, and connecting with my daughter. Kids will not just share that they are depressed; they often do not realize that’s what they are encountering.

Amy, you started to feel depressed. You were having a hard time getting out of bed and you were kind of crashing back into bed after school. You were losing hope and motivation in different areas of your life. Even though with depression we often do not feel much, you described being numb. Where did that leave you when your parents missed this?

I was sending signals the best I could without wanting to actually talk about it. It’s understandable that they missed it. What was really devastating to me was when I did confront them and ask them to take me to a doctor, because I thought I was depressed, I was completely invalidated. They said, “Amy, you’re just going through middle school. Everybody goes through this.” I was really hurt because they did not believe me.

Not Every Adolescent Has Depression

Research shows that during the adolescent years, 28% will deal with depression. In my working with families, I would say probably 30% to 40% of the adolescents are struggling with some level of depression. Rarely have parents realized it and depression in kids can lead to conflicts as parents pressure their kids to move and be motivated.

What are some of the conflicts that depression leads to in your home?

Probably the biggest issue is we react to the symptoms and try to come up with our own conclusion as to how to fix them. We assign things like creating a list of all the things that you have in your life to be grateful for. We would pressure her to get going, to do something and to do her homework, which made things worse not better. We would say thing like you are privileged, you should be okay as well as things like Amy, you’re not praying enough, pray more. You’ll be fine.

Conflict often stems from looking at the surface

Conflict often stems from looking at the surface and assigning solutions without understanding the root of the problem. Then our kids do not feel heard understood or supported which leaves then hurt and frustrated and more likely to react. I have found that our kids often push back. Reactions stem from what Amy coined as the muck in the bottom of her pond; the stuffed feelings and unresolved issues that pile up and make us more sensitive.

Jo Anne, in terms of looking back and that timeframe as a parent with a depressed kid, what would you have done differently? What would you tell a parent who has a depressed kid?

The first thing is listen and respect your child. There were times when Amy would not want to talk to me. I was coming off of an insanely close relationship with my daughter and now she was pulling away. That void really scared me so I went through the checklist, asking myself, am I doing this right?

If you see changes in your child, try to gently and respectfully start drawing them out. Listen and then believe them. We are too busy and often don’t give our kids the time to just see what’s happening to them, to see what’s going on in their lives. Get to know your child; get as close as your child will allow with respect and questions.

Amy, along the way, you’re struggling with depression. Your parents aren’t perceiving it, maybe not believing you and that’s leaving you even more hurt. What would you tell a parent to do in that time frame when they’re seeing changes in their kid, even if their kids are not throwing off little signals that they might be feeling depressed.

Don’t jump on them either way. Don’t automatically attack them with you’re fine, like my mom did. Don’t tell them you’re a normal kid and everything’s going to be fine. And also don’t jump on them and say, oh my God, you’re depressed. Let’s deal with this. It depends on your relationship with your child and you really just need to ask the important questions to understand what they’re going through. If they say they feel depressed, don’t discredit that and don’t think it’s just an excuse. Invalidation is just as harmful as accusing them of something horrible that is not true

What can parents do to help a child that is struggling?

As a parent, I’ve never been around anyone who was depressed. I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced depression. So I was very skeptical and unfamiliar with it. I didn’t have any point of reference on how to even understand this. So I would encourage parents to get some professional help. Jeff, you have been invaluable as a mentor to me. Parents with depressed kids really need support because most are trying to deal with something very unfamiliar. It’s hard when Amy puts on the act we want her to put forth. My beautiful daughter, is a straight A student. When she seems okay and may even laugh, I think, good its all over when it’s not. It’s hard at times to believe she is struggling so much inside. It seems risky to believe them and eliminate all pressure. Yet if they are already down on themselves, any pressure makes them feel worse.

Sometimes I would make this mistake and say things. like, Oh good, it’s over. We don’t have depression anymore. And she’ll would say, mom, nothing’s changed. I would think you’re kidding me. I thought we were doing so well. So I have realized I don’t always see things clearly. I need help from a good mentor to be able to help my daughter.

Along the way Amy, how many counselors or psychiatrists have you seen? She would say five or six. How many of them really identified what was going on deep within you?

I’ve been to four counselors I believe, and then one psychiatrist. So the counselors ask, Oh and how does that make you feel? They just send me back into the minefield called my parents. No offense guys. I was given no real tools to deal with. Or they would tell me what’s wrong with me. I knew there was something wrong and I wanted to hear what it was. The psychiatrist basically was just like, yup, you have depression, anxiety, a history of eating disorders and a slight bit of OCD. And then she just made me talk about how I was feeling. I wasn’t getting any results with anything until we finally started working with you. Then we really started seeing things in our relationships and how the family functions.

The Family Culture is Important

Part of your depression was the family dynamic. How much of it was related to your family?

A Big chunk.

Do you think it would be possible to escape depression without your family making some changes?

Absolutely not. Because like I said, I was getting very few if any coping mechanisms that worked for more than a week or two from counselors. I’m not saying my parents were the problem. It was just our relationships, the entire interaction in our family and the culture. They were pretty harmful on top of the depression, anxiety and whatever I was already going through.

Along the way as we worked through this process, we addressed a myriad of different symptoms that came from what Amy calls the muck in her pond. What were some of the things that have been hard but really necessary to do in terms of helping her begin to recover?

It’s a Mental Issue

I think understanding that she is fighting a disease, mental illness, and coming to that acceptance. She has such a high functioning capability that made me look at the situation and look at her and think this is an act or manipulation. It was hard to just accept that there was a challenge and we needed to figure out a path to be able to come alongside her.

I’m fortunate that we’ve known you and we’ve known YTN/Revive Family. As you’ve heard from Amy, we took many different paths, but the only one that seems to be helping us gain ground is recognizing the fact that we need to quit going after the symptoms, her behavior, and go after the root. And that’s really the message I have gleaned from Revive Family and it’s been instrumental. Jeff you’ve put together a a process for healing. First, we have to recognize we’ve got a problem and then go through the pain onto healing. It is a process and you have articulated very well the steps needed to heal our hearts and our family.

What are some of the steps that we’ve been taking, even this week as you’ve been in town for family camp, to remove the muck and lighten Amy’s load?

Well, as a mom, when you hear your child has depression, I think I am not alone in thinking I’m at fault. That oh, my gosh, what have I done or what has this family done to contribute to this? And then the guilt sets in and you don’t want to look at it and you want to minimize it. You play all these mental games. Finally, you realize you have a life that is in your possession and this is your chance to touch the future with an amazing life. If you just get yourself out of the way and look at your own internal negative core values because believe me, we all want to be perfect moms. We all want to put that image out there. But deep down inside we have our struggles, our insecurities. So the first thing was to look at myself and see what I was projecting that might be damaging my daughter. I needed to start the conversations and ask the questions realizing that if I did send some negative messages to her there’s a process that I have to go through. I have to give her time to forgive.

Being the lead in these situations is one of the more delicate roles that I play as I represent the adolescent and help them bring forth the sources of pain, the issues that have happened. Digging into some of the things that she recalls in her perspective is one of the steps we’ve taken this week. Helping bring understanding of those hurts where messages were sent is part of the process. Some may have been positive but totally misperceived.

Look At Yourself

Explain how hard it has been to hear and why it’s so important to hear what your child is holding onto inside.

When you are trying to help your child, you have to look at yourself. That is probably the most horrifically painful thing I could do. You want your child to look at herself and fix herself with your aid so they could be all right. But deep inside it’s very, very difficult to look at yourself and see that despite all the love and good intentions you had, you’ve done some damage. It is hard to forgive yourself. This process brings up so many things that you never took time for, you never discussed, you never even looked at and may not even know you need to do that with your kids. The family needs to function as a unit and you’ve got to own your piece of it. We were too much in charge and not taking enough time to listen or draw out our kids in order to understand them and their perspective of the family and what was pushing them away from us, their parents who loved them.

Amy, as you were asked to bring up past things with your family, what were some of your concerns?

In these few months that you’ve spent working with us, I’ve seen so much progress with my parents, especially my dad. But that being said, no offense, he is the one who needed the most progress and he is also the one who I feel like I’ve been getting a lot closer to. That being said, I feel like if I bring up issues from the past stemming from depression, forgiveness or whatever, I worry that they are going to revert to their old ways and react not listen, understand and work together as a team to be close.

And so this journey of bringing things up is really difficult. There’s fear involved, which brings up the muck in the pond and stirs up emotions that you’ve been able to suppress but led to your escape behaviors. How much do you think all of that ties to the depression you’ve encountered?

Oh, a lot. Being depressed and having an ever-growing amount of muck in the bottom of my pond is something that I’m struggling with. On top of being high functioning, on top of being hopeless, not wanting to live, I’m constantly shoveling out as much as I can. And to me at times it seems it’s coming back just as fast.

That is why helping the family function better is so important. Explain why the muck seems to be coming back just as fast.

I haven’t really been able to identify whether it’s the same muck or it’s new muck coming in. As soon as I start getting better, I feel like there’s always a setback and that’s the muck sliding back in. That’s something that’s been one of the harder things for me to deal with through this transition. I think a big part of that is having depression, self-doubt and hopelessness because you know, it kind of feels like there’s always one step forward, two steps back.

I’ve seen more like two steps forwards, one step back, but there have been some fairly significant setbacks along the way. Some of them were not within your control in my opinion; there have been things from the outside that hit you. When we talk about this muck in the pond, you’re talking about those doubts, those pains, those feelings that you carry around. We’ve been helping you share some of those with your parents and helping them hear and understand your perspective and establishing apologies along the way when you’re dealing with that muck. Is it a challenge to let go and forgive or is it a challenge because there’s some reversion happening where parents sometimes take a couple steps forwards as well and then step backward?

I think it’s definitely a combination of both, forgiveness more on my part because I am, you know, so set on my ways and like everything has to be perfect. I’m not a very forgiving person so I own that. That and the other element of depression along with my parents reverting to their old ways at times it feels like are both components of why I feel like all my muck keeps sliding back in.

Depression is a very real factor for 28% of adolescents who encounter it at some point. I hope this has been helpful. I encourage you to contact me for a link to listen to my podcast that addresses depression and how parents can help their kids who may be depressed. I will be back next week with more on this very important topic.

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