Lesson #6: Parenting a teenager with major depression

Parenting a teenager with major depression is an exercise in learning to parent without fear.

To be fair, I guess all parents feel fearful.

I remember when my husband and I left the hospital with our brand new daughter, less than 24 hours old. We were amazed they let us leave. Didn’t they know we didn’t know how to care for a baby? We could barely get her in her car seat in the hospital parking lot.

In those early days as a new mom, my anxieties crept into my sleep. I dreamed of a flood. As waves of water thundered against the walls of our house, I held my daughter close while screaming that I couldn’t take care of her with this flood raging. It was terrifying.

But not nearly as terrifying as bringing my daughter home from another hospital, thirteen years later, knowing I really couldn’t keep her safe. I couldn’t swaddle her like I did when she was a baby or bring her into my bed to keep watch over her in the darkness.

She was no longer dependent on me to keep her free of harm. Instead, I was fully dependent on her and on her willingness to live.

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In the news: Apple introduces tools to limit screen time

In July 2018, Apple introduced tools to monitor and limit screen time as part of the iOS 12 update.

(To be fair, so, too, did Google on their Android P system, but we’re a family of Apple users.)

If you read my  post on smartphones, you’ll know I struggle with restricting my kids’ screen time. And you’ll know that I believe unchecked smartphone use, and in particular Snapchat, played a role in my daughter’s depression.

Which is why, when a tech company does something that might help us be more mindful of our digital habits, I rejoice. Even if Screen Time is providing Apple with incredible amounts of data about how I, and my kids, spend literally every minute of our days.

If you haven’t heard of Screen Time, or like me are slow to update your phone’s software, here’s the quick and dirty. For a full step by step guide on how to set it all up, check out this article from Tom’s Guide.

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Lesson #5: Delay and restrict smartphone use

There are few struggles in parenting that have plagued me more than the topic of smartphone use. For those with kids younger than my own, I have some hard-earned parental wisdom: delay and restrict smartphone use for as long as possible. Because once that genie’s out of the bottle, it’s really hard to put her back.

Are smartphones destroying our kids?

My daughter had relatively unrestricted access to a smartphone and social media accounts long before Dr. Jean Twenge’s story Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? appeared in the September 2017 issue of The Atlantic.

If you’re unfamiliar with Twenge’s research, here’s a quick summary: Twenge studies generational differences, and noticed that in 2012, there was an abrupt shift in adolescent behaviour and emotional states. That same year, the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent. By 2017, three of four American teens had smartphones. As smartphone use shot up, adolescent well-being plummeted.

Graph showing decline in teenagers' well-being after 2012
Research conducted by Jean M. Twenge and Gabrielle N. Martin, Department of Psychology,
San Diego State University; W. Keith Campbell, Department of Psychology,
University of Georgia shows declines in teenagers’ well-being, as reported by 8th, 10th and 12th-graders,

She argues that while teens are safer physically, the post-millennial generation is “on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades.”

There are many who disagree with Twenge’s siren call.  Dr. Sarah Rose Cavanagh, in her column for  Psychology Today, argued Twenge cherry picked her data, that her research showed mere associations vs correlations.

Similarly, Elizabeth Nolan Brown on BuzzFeed called bullshit on Twenge’s theory citing that suicide rates have fallen dramatically since the 1990s. So has the use of alcohol, smoking, car accidents and teenage pregnancies. She writes, “the kids, by almost all measures, are more than alright.”

In Nature, an international journal of science, author Candice Odgers reports that smartphones are bad only for some kids, not all. Online activity, the author argues, is only reflecting and potentially worsening existing vulnerabilities.

So, what’s a parent to do?

I’m not a scientist, but here’s what I know for sure: My daughter was a Snapchat fanatic by the age of 13 with thousands upon thousands of snaps under her belt. She seemed fine. Until she developed clinical depression.

Continue reading “Lesson #5: Delay and restrict smartphone use”

Lesson #4: Shawn Achor on how to train your brain to be happy

If I’ve learned anything over the past few years it’s that there is  no one way to fix depression. For Shawn Achor, positive psychology worked for him.

I first learned of Shawn Achor, the author of The Happiness Advantage and founder of GoodThink Inc. at The Globe and Mail’s Executive Performance Summit in 2016. Achor was the keynote.

He was easy to spot in the crowd. In a room full of type A personalities, all  suited and taut, he was dressed business casual. He had a friendly air  and a hypnotic smile that he would cast on anyone within five feet of him. My immediate thought was that he was either on something or on to something.

Shawn Achor
Photo courtesy of GoodThink Inc.

Right off the top of his presentation, he asked the audience to turn to the person next to them and smile at them for sixty seconds. Everyone shifted in their seats reluctantly, clearly somewhat horrified at having to do this, but equally determined to succeed.

About twenty seconds in, the silent room started to get noticeably uncomfortable. Staring into someone’s eyes, a stranger’s or worse, a colleague’s, smiling, for twenty seconds is a really weird thing to do. At thirty seconds, hearing they were only halfway there, a few people started snickering. When we hit the one-minute mark, the room erupted with relief. People were laughing and chatty. They looked happy and satisfied,  proud of what they’d just accomplished.

And that was his point. That was all it took to reset the dynamics of an entire room. No money. No spreadsheets. Just sixty seconds of smiling to make two hundred people, individually and collectively, feel good, happy and optimistic. It wasn’t even 9am and already the day was looking up. Continue reading “Lesson #4: Shawn Achor on how to train your brain to be happy”

Lesson #3: Listen to podcasts

When things were really down and out for me on this road of parenting depression, I started to listen to podcasts. They helped.

If you ask a parent the one thing they truly want in life for their children, they’ll undoubtedly say happiness. But what if your child isn’t happy? What if your child is questioning whether their life is even worth living? It kind of messes you up as a parent.

When my daughter was hospitalized for her depression, I asked the social worker assigned to her, how did this happen? We were getting help. She was on medication, she had a therapist.  He told me depression is like a whirlpool. It can turn and turn and turn and then, out of nowhere, it can quickly suck someone under. I thought about this a lot in the months that followed.

As a parent, above the waterline, suicidal depression is more like a tornado. It lifts the roof off your world, scattering your emotions and sense of self in a million directions. All the while the storm is raging, you have to stand still and steady.  And when the flood waters rise, you tread furiously to keep you both afloat, not letting on that you’re tired and worn out and not sure you can save either one of you.

In the aftermath of this crisis, I started crying. Mostly in my car on the way to work. It was odd and sort of fascinating to me. I’d never been a crier. It was as if my body had filled up with so much water during the storm that even the smallest bump in the road was enough to push a few drops over the edge.

I know uncontrollable crying is a sign of depression, but in lieu of  spare change, time and emotional energy to fix myself, I started to listen to podcasts. I needed a distraction, but more, I needed to learn how to be happy again. I needed to make sense of my life and my choices. To understand why I was making this same drive to work, day after day, when I was failing at my most important job.

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Lesson #2: Requesting academic accommodation

Requesting academic accommodation for my teenager daughter who lives with depression wasn’t easy, but it was necessary. Here’s what happened.

At some point, you may need to request academic accommodation for your child.

Accommodations are based on the premise that school is not about how you learn, but what you learn. They’re designed to “level the playing field” by recognizing that people with mental health disabilities or physical disabilities may be at a disadvantage.

In our case, the need for accommodations arose when my daughter was in grade ten. She was having trouble writing tests, and later that same year, the weekend before final exams she felt unable to write them at all. With her first exam scheduled for 9am on Monday morning and worth 30% of her final mark, my husband and I and her therapist scrambled to figure out how to handle the situation. Continue reading “Lesson #2: Requesting academic accommodation”

Lesson #1: How to spot signs of depression

I’ve been over dozens of checklists for depression dozens of times. Still, I’m not sure I would have recognized signs of depression in my own daughter.

Years ago, I worked with a woman who had a teenage daughter who had dropped out of school and refused to leave her basement. In the morning, over coffee, she’d give me the latest on the home front, jokingly referring to her daughter as the basement dweller. On the odd occasion, that same daughter would come to work, curl up and sleep in the corner of her office.

Withdrawal from everyday activities. It a classic sign of depression.

It was 2004 and by today’s standards, I was likely the worst colleague in the world. I had no idea what she was going through. I didn’t recognize her own struggle or her daughter’s for what it was, but I do now. Continue reading “Lesson #1: How to spot signs of depression”