Parenting Big Kids When You’re Depressed
The first time I was put on medication for depression, I was 16 years old. This was back in the dark ages (okay; the 80s), too, before SSRIs existed, before your general practitioner would write you a prescription, before kids were routinely medicated, and way before the medical community agreed that some people’s brains are, unfortunately, chemically predisposed to struggle no matter how much exercise or therapy or kale they get.
These days, depression is part of my medical history as well as something I manage daily. I do it with my medication and therapy and various coping strategies, and most of the time I’m fine. Even when I’m not fine, a lifetime at this particular rodeo have brought me to a place where things are manageable. I function, I get things done. I’m not always at my very best, but I do the best I can. This is especially important now that I have kids, and even more important because I have kids who also struggle with anxiety and depression. (Sometimes it’s a heapload of fun around here, I tell you what.)
I not only have to take care of myself and take care of them, I have to make sure my issues don’t damage them, and I have to try to set a good example of how living with this sort of challenge can be handled with as much grace as possible. Kindness, understanding, and personal responsibility can all go a long way towards smoothing over the speed bumps depression lays down in front of us.
DO talk about your depression
There’s a difference between wallowing and talking. The latter doesn’t necessarily include the former, and the attitude that talking about a challenge somehow gives it power or too much importance is, I think, dangerous. Secrecy is where stigma is born. Keep it age appropriate, of course—you don’t tell your little kid anything beyond “Mom’s working on feeling less sad and tired, and the doctor’s giving me some medication to help”—and remember that even teenagers don’t want all the gory details, but be honest if you’re feeling unwell. They can handle it as long as you can, I promise.
DON’T use your depression as an excuse
The two phrases we use in our family are “This is an explanation but not an excuse” and “You can’t control how you feel, but you can control how you act.” If I snap at one of the kids because I’m feeling awful, the explanation may be that I’m feeling crummy, but that doesn’t excuse my poor behavior. I try very hard to apologize right away if something like that happens. This is particularly important when dealing with teens who are convinced that nothing they do is ever their responsibility; if I can’t take full responsibility for my actions, I sure as heck can’t expect the kids to manage it for theirs.
DO take breaks
My patience wears thin when I’m struggling, and I’ve learned that I can’t tolerate as much stress as I would, otherwise. So when it comes to things like a child wanting to argue about a privilege or a consequence when I’m not feeling 100%, I have no problem saying, “You know what? I can’t have this conversation right now. I need to take a break because I don’t want to lose my temper.” One of my kids is better at honoring that request than the other one; when necessary, I have no problem leaving the room (or the house) in order to enforce that separation.
DON’T be a martyr
Parenting is a tough gig under the best of circumstances, and when you’re struggling with depression it can feel overwhelming. Resist the urge to continue doing “everything” because “they need me” if you really need help. Trust me when I tell you that no one wants you to do it all if that’s causing you to unravel. Ask for help. I don’t just mean therapy and meds—that’s a given; get the medical attention you require—but I mean asking your partner to step up, if you have one, or asking family or friends for assistance. Ask your kids to pitch in more, or to otherwise cut you some slack, where appropriate. This is all about degrees. You don’t want to crawl into bed and tell everyone to fend for themselves (if you’ve reached that level of non-functioning, please call your doctor), but you don’t have to do everything yourself when there are other able-bodied humans around, either. Find the happy medium. Families work together, especially when help is needed.
DO let your kids know your depression is not their fault
I’ve seen tons of people talk about how to let younger kids know that your depression has nothing to do with them, to soothe and reassure them that they didn’t cause your difficulties. Guess what! Teenagers—for all their bluster and bravado and sometimes breathtaking self-absorption—have the same worries and fears. As far as I can tell, the only big difference between little kids and big kids here is that little kids tend to become very eager to please when they think they’re the reason you’re not okay, whereas teenagers will simply become even angrier and more uncooperative and rotten because deep down, they’re terrified, and hormones apparently make it very difficult to deal with that in a rational manner. Clarify that you’re unhappy with whatever rule they broke or their disrespectful tone or missing curfew, but that is a separate issue from your depression. It may feel redundant or weird, but they need to hear it. More than once.
Maybe when I’m struggling I still get up and meet all of my responsibilities, but one of my kids is letting things slide. Even if I thought it was a good idea to say, “Well, I’m dealing with the same issues and yet I manage to get everything done!”, what would that accomplish? Everyone’s journey is different, and a comparison like that is only going to make everyone involved feel even worse. I’m the grown-up in this scenario. What works for me may be beyond what my kids can manage, right now. I can understand and empathize with their challenges without expecting them to handle them exactly the same way I do.
DO highlight the good
No matter how I’m feeling, I love these other people sharing my house more than I can possibly express. When I’m feeling poorly, I try to verbalize gratitude even more, both to remind myself of all the good in my life and to let them know that my issues don’t change how much I love and appreciate them. “Thank you for taking care of the dishes, that was really helpful,” and “I love seeing you get your work done and feel proud of yourself” are simple sorts of observations that can be a balm for everyone. It’s an easy habit to cultivate, and it helps.
The last thing anyone needs when dealing with depression is more reasons to feel guilty. Parenting through depression can be done, so long as you’re managing your condition. Keep taking care of you, and you’ll continue being able to take care of them.
Editor: here is the National Institute of Mental Health’s (NIMH) resource list on getting information and assistance with mental health. If you or a loved one are in crisis and need immediate help tell someone who can help you right away, like your doctor, call 911, go to the emergency room or call the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) to be connected to a trained counselor at a suicide crisis center nearest you.