There are lots of different characteristics that make up depression: an overall low mood, a change in eating patterns, too much sleep/not enough sleep, not motivated, a withdrawal from their family, a disinterest in things they used to love doing, not wanting to leave the house, can’t really be bothered.
Adding to the confusion is the simple knowledge that depression presents on a spectrum, ranging from low to mild to severe.
At what point do you think ‘depression’ over ‘normal’ teenage behaviour? Most teens will display some of the above symptoms at some point in their teen years as they move away from being the children they used to be and into the adults they will become. And as parents we expect there will be some times of trial as our children grow.
So how does a parent know? It took me a while before I put the pieces together and came to a conclusion that matched the feeling in my gut. I had known this child for 17 years, and I knew her well enough to notice that her mood was low, she seemed to be struggling to smile and participate in our often hectic family, she had stopped singing to herself, her appetite was picky and she was no longer so bothered about missing outings with friends or sports practices.
Then she seemed to get a bit better. So I stopped worrying, and watching so hard. But suddenly she got worse. At which point she was brave enough to tell me “Mum, I’m not feeling ok.” And the intuition that had been trying very hard to talk to me kicked in.
I was fortunate to have her come to me for help. Sometimes you may not be so lucky, you may need to be the one to go to them. As a parent don’t doubt your instincts. Remind yourself that you know your child well, in fact better than any professional they may need to see. You may be well off the mark, but at least your child will know you are seeing them, noticing them and care enough to take the time to talk to them. Or you may be right on the button but they still may not feel comfortable opening up immediately. Give them the message that you love them, you support them and you’ve got their back.
Don’t leave it.
Tell them that being the parent is your job and it is your job to make sure they’re ok - this immediately takes the pressure off your teen who could well be also feeling guilty or ashamed for not feeling okay. Maybe they can see you’re really busy and they don’t want to be a burden or extra work. Or they feel like they’re letting you down because they can’t handle things. Let them know that they’re more important, you’re here to make sure they’re going to be okay and together you can solve this. Just knowing you are on their side makes an enormous difference.
Sit with your teen, brainstorm some ideas together and make some choices with them. They may not want to see a doctor to start with, but maybe they’ll go to a naturopath … there are lots of alternatives; and just knowing you are willing to explore alternatives with them is empowering for your teenager, your relationship and you. Action is the antidote to depression, so whatever happens, don’t ignore symptoms, sweep them under the carpet and choose the seemingly easier way. Know that doing nothing is not okay.
Us parents want to think that most of the time we’re doing a reasonable, okay job of things. That our children will turn out all right in the end and that they will be happy. So it’s not uncommon for parents to feel guilty, responsible or ashamed if their child is struggling with a mental illness. Seriously though, that won’t get you very far and if anything it may even prevent you taking action and getting things started. No health professional or other parent who sees you bending over backwards for a sick child is going to judge you for being a poor parent. Quite the contrary, they’re going to be so pleased to have someone to work with them rather than against them that any thoughts of judgement won’t be a part of the picture.
And get some support for yourself. Feeling powerless and helpless is going to make it harder to help your teens.