How to stop feeling guilty about your teen's depression
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How to stop feeling guilty about your teen’s depression

If you’re feeling guilty about your teen’s depression, you really need to stop. Your guilt isn’t helping either one of you and the sooner you can absolve yourself and accept that shit happens, the better. Here’s how to do it.

Your teenager’s depression is not your fault. I’m sure you’ve heard that before. But do you believe it? After all, it’s your child. Nature and nurture and all that jazz. And while you can’t be blamed for the hell COVID has wrought, surely you could do better, right? As parents, we can always be better.

For me, the double whammy of guilt and shame hit me in the emergency room. My daughter was being transferred to another hospital, where she would be held for 72 hours on a Form 1 after she refused treatment for her depression.

I tried to wear a brave face while the doctors completed the paperwork, but still tears welled up in my eyes. When my daughter saw them, she looked at me hard, her own baby blues were ice cold as she asked, “Why are you crying?”

She blames me.

That was the first thought in my head, closely followed by this is my fault and a flood of evidence that supported this belief. I missed too many family dinners and depression’s early warning signs. I made a comment about the amount of sugar she was eating. When she was a baby, I let her cry herself to sleep.

And the absolute worst thought: I failed to teach my daughter the most basic lesson–that life was worth living.

I was a shitty mom.

In response, I went home that afternoon, scoured her room, and read her journal because surely something else had happened. Someone else had done something to cause her depression. It was not my greatest moment.

She has yet to forgive me for the breach of privacy, though we’ve managed to somehow move past it. And there was nothing else. At least nothing traumatic. Just my parenting.

It has taken me years for me to stop feeling guilty about my teen’s depression. And while there are still many parenting mistakes I regret, I am grateful for the lessons I’ve learned. Chief among them: three powerful ideas from Brooke Castillo, the founder of The Life Coach School.

“The only thing I have power over right now is my mind and I’m going to watch my mind”

Brooke Castillo, The Life Coach School Podcast Episode #107 When Something Sucks

Idea #1: You can control your thoughts

At the heart of Brooke’s teaching is the idea that your thoughts create your feelings, which drive your actions and your results.

And here’s the magic: you can control your thoughts.

The first step is to become aware of what you’re thinking. To actually stop yourself, mid-crisis if necessary, and observe your thoughts. Write them down if you can, and look at them one by one.

So often when parenting a teenager who has depression, or parenting in general, you can’t control your circumstances. Nor can you change the past. What’s done is done.

But, you can examine the thought you’re thinking in the present moment. What is it? How does it make you feel? Is it serving you?

As Brooke will tell you, this is not about trying to think only good thoughts.

Life really blows at times. And we’re human. No one feels awesome all the time. Plus, negative thoughts and emotions can be powerful forces.

However, if your thoughts are causing you to lash out in uncontrollable anger, withdrawal completely, or do things you’re not proud of like reading your kid’s journal, there’s a chance your thoughts are no longer serving you.

Brooke will also say, your thoughts need to be believable. This means you can’t just replace a negative thought with a positive one. She suggests trying on a neutral thought instead.

Like, instead of thinking “I’m a shitty mom,” try thinking, “I’m a mom.”

Even a tiny shift can make you feel better. At the very least, it makes you think, you got something right—you procreated! Way to go! Now, what else can you do?

Idea #2: Your feelings won’t hurt you

In addition to taking control of your thoughts, Brooke encourages everyone to learn to feel your feelings. Especially the bad ones.

While I could easily describe anxiety – butterflies in my stomach, a rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms – I’m not sure I could have explained to someone what guilt or shame felt like in my body.

I think every time I felt those feelings, I’d either push them away or gang up on myself and pile on the proof points of why I was guilty.

Now, I try to just feel it, without thinking.

Guilt, I’ve learned, hits me in the middle of my chest. It has a weight that spreads across me from armpit to armpit. The back of my head, almost on the inside of my skull, tingles at bit. Bizarre.

Shame strikes me in the outer corners of my eyes. Like a pinching that tweaks the bridge of my nose and tickles my nostrils.

Neither feeling is crippling or even painful. That’s Brooke’s point.

When you can feel your feelings, you learn that the feeling itself is not so bad. It’s your thoughts that are crushing you. So back to step one. What are you choosing to think?

Idea #3: You cannot control other people’s thoughts

Closely related and equally powerful is the idea that you cannot control other people’s thoughts.

Quite often, I wish I could. As parents, our lives would be so much easier if we could just control what our kid’s think, and consequently how they feel and act. Unfortunately, we can’t.

However, if you accept that you don’t have mind-controlling superpowers, you need to also accept the other truth: you’re not responsible for your kid’s thoughts. You didn’t create them. They did.

It’s like having a different kind of superpower.

I flex it most often these days with my son who has a tendency to say an automatic “no” to a lot of things. His reasoning, organized activities suck. School sucks. My house rules suck.

Whereas it used to trigger me to think, “why are you so stubborn,” feel frustrated and annoyed, and consequently argue with him, now I often tell him calmly, “Well, I can’t control your thoughts. If you want to think that, and feel however that makes you feel, that’s your choice.”

Couple that with an examination of my own thoughts and feelings—I’ll admit, sometimes after I’ve freaked out on him—I find myself in a whole new headspace. Far less reactive and far more deliberate in my choice of words and actions. It hasn’t changed my kids’ mental health, but it has helped mine.

If you have other tricks or tips that helped you to stop feeling guilty about your teen’s depression, let me know.

Further reading