Hey, homeschoolers! This episode has a different format than what I usually publish. It’s the audio from a YouTube video by the same name. If you’d like to watch it instead, head to YouTube.com/melaniewilson. Otherwise, just expect a couple of video references.
Are you worried about a depressed son or daughter? Do you wonder what you can do to help? A homeschool mom wrote me with this very question. I have an answer for her and for you next.
I’m Dr. Melanie Wilson, Christian psychologist turned homeschool mom of six. Few things are as frightening for us moms as when a son or daughter is depressed and we feel helpless. We can’t make our teen stop being depressed, much as we would like to. But there are some very powerful things we can do for a depressed child.
First, we can express unconditional love for our son or daughter.
Using words to express that love is important. But we can add a hug or a shoulder rub to the words I love you. If your teen is resistant to touch, don’t underestimate the comfort of your presence.
In the book of Job we read that his friends “…sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him because they saw how great his suffering was.” A depressed young adult usually feels alone. Our patient presence argues against that sense of isolation.
Second, we can share our experience to give our kids hope.
I saw the signs of depression in my homeschooled son because I’d experienced them myself. I shared how I felt disconnected and different in high school because I knew my son would relate. I told him I worried that it would never get better, but it did. I also shared my experience with hormonal fluctuations that could convince me my life was horrible, even though that wasn’t true.
After we’ve affirmed our love and assured our teen that we can relate, we can present treatment options. Depression can convince teens that there’s nothing they can do. There are ways to treat depression that can work, whether your child’s situation or brain chemistry is causing symptoms. Talk to your teen about these options.
Option 1: Medication. Before getting a prescription from your doctor, you should get a thorough physical. There are multiple conditions that mimic depression: hypothyroidism, diabetes, and vitamin D deficiency are just a few. Be aware that abuse of alcohol or marijuana can also contribute to depression.
Antidepressant medication can be prescribed by a physician to improve sleep, appetite, and energy. Finding the right medication and dose can take weeks but taking one can make it easier for you to do the mental work needed for a full recovery.
Option 2: Light and exercise. If seasonal changes are contributing to depression, using a sunlight lamp can help. Regular aerobic exercise (walking, swimming, or playing a vigorous sport) is another powerful way of improving mood without the side effects of medication. Exercising with a friend or family member serves a dual purpose.
Option 3: Increase pleasant activities. When we are depressed, we stop doing the things we used to enjoy like getting together with friends, spending time on hobbies, and even getting things done. We tell ourselves that we can’t do the activities unless we “feel like it.” As a result of inactivity, we have fewer feel-good neurotransmitters released in our brain. The depression gets worse, and the cycle continues.
Fortunately, we can break the cycle by pushing ourselves to do what used to be enjoyable. We can shoot some hoops, go to a movie, or get a math assignment done. We won’t feel like doing it and our depression won’t be gone after one activity. But as we keep gently pushing ourselves to do these things, we will experience improved brain chemistry.
Option 4: Cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT. Our thoughts or cognitions lead to emotions. If the thoughts are negative (like I have no friends), our emotional response will be negative. Over time, negative thinking can result in depressed mood. Just as with letting go of pleasant activities, the negative thinking-depressed mood connection becomes cyclical. The more depressed we become, the more negative our thinking.
The good news is that interrupting this cycle by challenging the thoughts improves brain chemistry as effectively as medication. What’s exciting about CBT is that it is a long-term treatment without side effects.
For example, instead of accepting the thought “I have no friends” after you can’t find someone who wants to play basketball, you’d challenge it. “I DO have friends, but they aren’t available to play right now. I would like to have more friends who play. I might be able to meet some people by going to open gym times. Maybe my brother will go with me.”
The book The New Mood Therapy by David Burns can walk you through using CBT on your own. But if you’re more than mildly depressed, it might be hard for you to come up with alternatives to your negative thoughts. That’s where a professional trained in CBT can help. A psychologist or counselor can also assist you in using the other treatment approaches I’ve mentioned.
Talk to your young adult about these options. Which would he like to try first? Ask how you can provide support without nagging. If your teen doesn’t commit to anything, explain that you’ll raise the subject again because you love them. A patient, relaxed approach to providing support is best.
But when depression is so severe that your child thinks they would be better off dead, he needs professional help.
Do not hesitate to ask a severely depressed teen if they have thought about taking their own life. Calmly ask if they have thought about how they would do it. If they have, ask them if anything would keep them from taking their own life. Then if your teen has a plan, remove access to the means of harming themselves until the depression is resolved. If your son says he would never harm himself, it’s still important to make an appointment with a mental health professional if he is having suicidal thoughts. If your teen says nothing will stop him from attempting suicide, take him to the emergency room or call 911. Even an adult child who intends to take his own life can be admitted to the hospital without consent. If admitted, medication, group, and/or individual counseling will be used to stabilize him. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline is another resource.
After acknowledging this frightening possibility, it’s important that I share the most powerful thing we can do for a depressed son or daughter: pray for them. God knows how to reach your teen. God knows how to heal him. And though we want to do anything we can to help and protect our child, we are not God. We are not all-knowing and all-powerful. If we try to be God in our kids’ lives, we will be exhausted and depressed ourselves.
And so we pray to the One who is always with our son or daughter and loves them even more than we do. For more help with trusting God in this area, I recommend the devotional My Weakness for His Strength by Michael Wells. Find it in the description for this video. I pray this information has been helpful to you.