Self-care for parents, Understanding Depression

How I learned to parent through fear

Parenting a teenager with major depression, I’ve learned, is an exercise in learning to parent through fear.

To be fair, I guess all parents worry about their teenagers. We all fear for their safety at one time or another and do what we can to mitigate risk and shield them from harm. And if your child is healthy, chances are they have some skin in the game. They, too, have a vested interest in not dying.

However, if your child has attempted suicide, or has admitted to suicidal ideation, the rules change. And that’s when things become really scary.

Parenting a teenager with depression is an exercise in learning to parent through fear
Photo by Varshesh Joshi on Unsplash

The irony of parenting a teenager with major depression

About a year into my daughter’s illness, 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 out loud at the irony of it all.

My daughter was doing drugs, I told her. She’s 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 my daughter 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.

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.

I wasn’t alone in my worry

Thankfully, I learned, I wasn’t the only one struggling to parent through fear. Michigan Mom wrote this about her own challenges in a column for HuffPost:

“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 I have to learn to care for my suicidal teen with limits but without fear in a column 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 created a safe plan, a set of escalating instructions to follow if he felt at risk of self-harm and a rating system to communicate how he was feeling.

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 fears from her son’s psychiatrist, he told her she had to stop fearing for his death and planning for his life. Those are wise words. I took them to heart.

Here’s how I learned to parent through fear

1. Understanding suicide

Suicide is a risk with 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 typically a spiteful reaction or an act of teenage rebellion, but rather 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 focusing on her reasons to live, I found I spent less time fearing for her death.

2. 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.

3. Celebrating the small stuff

Depression lies. It wants her to be alone and to stay in bed. Treatment, it tells her often, if pointless. So, 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.

4. 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 and 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.

5. 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.

6. Preparing for anything

My daughter is an incredible self-advocate. When she needs help, or when she enters a new phase of her life or illness, she will often come to me, which leads to some pretty weird conversations at times. So, I try to be prepared. I might not have a solution to her problem, but at the very least I have a better chance of managing my initial reaction. And if I can do that, I can usually get myself into a ‘We’ve got this,’ frame of mind. Because we do. We’ve got this.

Do you have other tips for managing parental fears? If so, I’d love to read them in the comments below.

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