Parenting a teenager with major depression is an exercise in learning to parent through fear.
To be fair, I guess all parents feel afraid for their children.
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 storm 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 dependent on her and on her willingness to live.
The irony of parenting a teenager with major depression
A few months later, my sister alerted me to a questionable image on my daughter’s Facebook page and asked me if I worried she was doing drugs. In that moment, I had to laugh at the irony of it all.
My daughter was doing drugs! She’d tried all sorts of things — Zoloft, Paxil, Ciprolex, Seroquel, Wellbutrin, Prestiq. I bought them for her.
Now don’t get me wrong. I worry a lot about what might happen if she turns to self-medication. But I also worry when she’s home alone and doesn’t answer the phone. Or when she takes the subway to school knowing she left the house in a particularly low mood.
Somehow, when parenting a teenager with major depression, the typical parental worries like drugs, alcohol, sex, or peer pressure are dwarfed against larger worries of self-harm or suicide. But they are also amplified. Knowing that any one of these common teenage experiences could become triggers.
This left me with two options: I could drive myself mad with worry, or I could learn to parent through my fears.
What it’s like to parent a teenager who may be suicidal
Michigan Mom wrote of similar struggles in her column, How I survived parenting a teen with depression for HuffPost. She writes,
“I didn’t sign up for this. Hiding the knives. Locking up the household cleaners. Checking his room for anything sharp, for hidden meds he didn’t take. Noticing new cuts on his arms. Wondering if I will find him dead in his room in the morning”
Jody Allard, a freelance writer in Seattle wrote a column I have to learn to care for my suicidal teen with limits but without fear for the Washington Post.
Her son was admitted to hospital for suicidal ideation. Before he was released he compiled a list of suicidal triggers and a safe plan, a set of ecalating instructions to follow if he felt at risk of self-harm. Like my daughter, he was taught to use a rating system as a way of communicating how he was feeling from one day to the next.
Mostly, she writes, he would say he was okay, a 2 or 3, but then suddenly she received a text saying he was a 7 or 8 and wanted to stay home from school:
“In the produce aisle, between heads of purple cauliflower and mounds of sweet potatoes, I wonder what “7 or 8” means on a suicidal scale of 1-10. If 10 is dead, what does a 7 look like? Is 7 a vague idea of suicide? Or is it standing on the bridge trying to decide whether to jump?”
She went home and forced him to sit with her, “bouncing his legs and looking at me like a caged animal.”
When Allard sought help for her own anxiety, her son’s psychiatrist told that she needed to stop fearing for his death and start planning for his life. Those are wise words. I keep them close.
Here’s what else has helped me in parenting a teenager with major depression:
- Understanding suicide. Suicide is a risk during a major depressive disorder, so I’ve decided to confront this fear head on. I’ve tried to learn everything I can about suicide. Why it happens. How to prevent it. What the difference is between active and passive suicidal ideation. Suicide, I’ve learned, is problem-solving behaviour. It’s not a spiteful reaction or an act of teenage rebellion. It’s often a last-resort plan to escape an intolerable pain. I started to focus my energy on making sure she felt there was always an alternative. And, as I started planning for her life, I found I spent less time fearing for her death.
- Trusting my gut. Like Allard, I’ve been on my way to work more than once only to turn around and go home. For whatever reason, there are days when I feel I need to be near her, sharing her space and air, even if she won’t speak to me or be in the same room as me. My daughter may think I’m being being irrational or irritating, but if it means I can squash my fear versus letting it fester, I’m ok with that.
- Celebrating the small stuff. Depression lies. It wants her to be alone. It wants her to stay in bed. It wants her to believe treatment is pointless. When she’s in its grip and she cleans her room, or makes an egg for breakfast, or goes for a run, I silently celebrate. She may still feel terrible, but even so, she managed to pick a path through the fog. That’s encouraging and reason enough for hope.
- Anticipating setbacks. Depression ebbs and flows and morphs. It’s like the creek that runs through my field. At times, during heavy rains or the spring thaw, it will spreads its arms and swallow the grasses that grow on its banks. But it also slows to a trickle, drying up entirely in the height of summer. Medication that was once working may stop working. Progress may be followed by regression. Knowing this allows me to witness change without fearing we’re on an unstoppable decline. I know that things can also level out and get better.
- Intervening when necessary. While I’m not privy to what my daughter tells her doctors and I have little control over her treatment or commitment to manage her illness, I’m not powerless. Interventions might be as subtle as sending her a text that says I’m thinking of her or a picture of her dog when I know she’s feeling low and alone. Sometimes they’re bigger like suggesting a medication may not be working based on her behaviour or suggesting a new form of treatment.
- Being prepared. For anything. My daughter is an incredible self-advocate. which leads to some pretty weird conversations at times. Usually, I’m the first responder when she needs help, when she’s entered a new phase of her life or her illness. I’ve found it helps to be prepared, if not with answers than at least with my reaction. It doesn’t always work, but I can usually get myself into a ‘We’ve got this,’ frame of mind, pretty quickly now. Cause we do. We’ve got this.