Self-care for parents

How to stop feeling guilty about your teen’s depression

Hands up if you want to stop feeling guilty about your teen’s depression?

No matter how many people tell your child’s depression is not your fault, it sometimes feels impossible to believe otherwise. After all, our kids are the result of both our nature and our nurture. Who else is there to blame?

For me, the double whammy of guilt and shame hit me in the emergency room. We were awaiting my daughter’s transport to another hospital. She was being held against her will, having refused treatment. And though she was fine physically, we were in uncharted territory–neither one of us knowing where this was headed.

While I tried putting on a brave face, I still couldn’t seem to stop tears from welling up in my eyes. When she saw them, she looked at me hard. Her own baby blues were as cold as ice when 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. At one point, I made a comment about the amount of sugar she was eating. When she was a baby, I let her cry herself to sleep. I didn’t teach my daughter the most basic lesson–that her 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 this. Not my greatest moment.

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

Your teenager’s depression is not your fault

It’s taken me years to actually believe that I’m not to blame for my daughter’s depression.

That’s not to say that I don’t wish I’d done some things (a lot!) differently or that my actions and words had no effect on her own thoughts and feelings. But I now know, for certain, that how she feels is not my fault.

What helped me to stop feeling guilty about my teen’s depression? Three powerful ideas from Brooke Castillo, the founder of The Life Coach School and her Life Coach School Podcast.

“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.

How do you manage your mind? Did you struggle with feeling guilty about your teen’s depression? And if so, how do you deal with it?

Further reading

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