Parenting Through a Child’s Depression

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Something happens to kids between elementary and middle school. You know, besides all that biology. I’m not sure what it is, but I’m pretty sure it’s also science. You hear about it. You’re given heads-up about it. But you don’t really “get it” until it happens to you. I thought for sure I’d prepared my kids for the middle school years and that they’d miss that awkward and oftentimes horrifying time of life.

Nope.

Both my son and daughter experienced the horrors of middle school and in a full-on after-school-special way. The awkward growth spurts. The promotions from amateur to full-time professional mean-girls. Boys were all over the board size-wise, still not understanding how to use their words. School was harder.

Things changed. And that included my super outgoing, happy, couldn’t-give-a-rip-about-what-anyone thinks daughter.

I got a call one day from the school counselor asking me to come to her office at school. When I got there I saw Rachel sitting on her couch, eyes red and teary. The counselor handed me a note and for the next few minutes I felt like time just stopped and the wind was knocked out of me.

It was a letter that my daughter had written to a friend sharing her intent to end her life. The friend, God bless him, had turned the note over to the counselor. The next couple of years were the hardest parenting season that I’ve experienced to date.

Now, I am not a doctor or therapist, but here are the things I’ve learned from my own experience and from comparing notes with other moms with the same experience.

  1. It’s Not Me—It’s You

This doesn’t happen to me very much, but God knew I needed to hear him loud and clear. It was as if he sat across from me, held my face in His hands, looked me dead in the eye and said, “Don’t. Make. This. About. You.”

As a mom, my first instinct is to think, “What did I do wrong?” I wanted to analyze at what point in her childhood did I not give her enough love or attention that led her to believe she couldn’t go on with her life. God made it very clear to me that I needed to get over myself. And I did, almost as instantly as I thought it. He showed me a timeline of her life and pointed to this very moment and said, “This is supposed to happen. All that work we’ve done up until this point? That was preparing her for this.”

I turned to her, put my arm around her and said, “Everything is going to be okay.” Over and over and over.

  1. Get Help ASAP

I knew we were in over our head and got professional help. That day. Our church is a wealth of information when it comes to this stuff. Your insurance will typically pay for counseling. The counselor wanted to meet with my husband and me first, and that was daunting. Be prepared to face some tough issues.

We’ve made it through drug-free. It’s okay not to. Again, I’m not a doctor, but from what I know of others, sometimes the chemicals in our brain need a little extra help.

  1. Be careful what you wish for.

That gifted and talented title that we’re so proud of as parents when our kids get tested in elementary school? It comes with a price. Ever heard of “the tortured artist?” My husband and I—a video game designer and an actress respectively—have both experienced those moments of black hole depression at times in our life. I’m not sure I would trade her brain in for a less creative one if it meant she wouldn’t have to suffer through depression and anxiety, but there are days I would have said differently. If you have a young child who exhibits gifted and talented signs, just be on the lookout. I’m not saying they most definitely will experience it, but according to every mom I’ve talked to whose older kids have dealt with depression, G/T factors into it.

Rachel found it hard to relate to kids her own age. She felt more comfortable talking to adults. So loneliness was a big issue for her.

  1. Listen, listen, listen.

And then listen some more. Randy and I learned pretty early on that the best way to discipline our children was to teach before the crisis happens. It’s next to impossible to teach your kid a biblical truth about selfishness when they’re in the throes of an epic meltdown. Likewise, you can teach your kid to talk to you candidly by listening to all the seemingly inane subject matter when they’re in the fourth grade and they explain in detail every last second of what happened at lunch that day without taking a single breath. Listening and engaging will help later on when they’re older and feel like they have a parent that is genuinely interested in what’s going on in their lives.

During this fragile season, though, I had to build some trust with her. Listening without judgment. Without offering the seven steps to health and happiness. Without quoting “Be anxious for nothing. . .” And that was hard, because those things help me when I’m sad.

If you didn’t lay the ground work when they were younger, it’s not too late. Think of specific questions to ask your teen who’s dealing with depression instead of vague ones. Instead of “How was your day,” ask “What was your favorite thing that happened today?” or “Tell me one new thing you learned.”

If they won’t talk, just sit with them. Clear the decks for time. Suck it up and make them teach you how to play a video game. Do something they want to do. Rachel is not a shopper. I am. So quality time for us isn’t shopping, it’s high tea at Lavendou’s. Or laughing our heads off at the hamsters at Petco. Or sharing a bowl of spaghetti at Macaroni Grill because homegirl will tell me her deepest darkest secrets when she’s got spaghetti.

Whatever you do, don’t give up. You can win this game of chicken if you just keep at it.

  1. Serve

As Rachel got a little older and we had been through the worst part of the storm and felt like we were driving back into a little bit of sunshine, she discovered that she now had a testimony. God began to use her to minister to other girls who were experiencing the same thing. She discovered that it felt good to perform small acts of kindness at school and would keep extra pencils and paper for kids who forgot theirs. Taking the focus off yourself and serving someone else can really put things in perspective. Ask your church for resources providing places that you and your family can serve.

  1. It Goes On

It wasn’t over after middle school. She still struggles with depression and anxiety, and she probably always will. But she’s figured out how to deal with it, what her triggers are, and how to ask for help, and her depression has lessened somewhat as she’s gotten older. Counseling has helped immensely with that.

There were so many times that I felt completely out of control and like I wanted to scream. To have this beautiful child so full of life and energy and creativity morph before my very eyes was heartbreaking. My prayer time took on a whole new meaning. There were many mornings I spent on my knees crying and asking God to have mercy.

But here’s the thing. God knows. He knows because He watched His Son learn about his cousin John being beheaded. He watched as Jesus grieved over His friend Lazarus. God watched Jesus cry out in agony in the garden as He faced one of the most brutal deaths known.

God has reminded me throughout parenting time and again, “I’ve got this.” I see His hand throughout Rachel’s life and I cannot fathom navigating any of this without my Savior.

God’s got this. And I’m so thankful He does.

Carrie Varnell

CarrieV
Carrie Varnell is a wife and mom living in Plano, TX. She has two kids, Rachel and Graham, two dogs—Rosie and Maximus—and one husband, Randy. Besides being a wife and mom, she works for SkitGuys.com as Script Manager. She loves her job(s).  She also makes up one half of the Skitzy Chicks. Carrie, along with…
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