“As the mother of a high school senior who has struggled with depression for nearly 10 years, I’m anxious about how I can help her adjust to life on her own without smothering her or somehow enabling failure.”
Most kids feel unhappy at some point in their teenage years. School and community-service responsibilities, peer pressure, college searches and scoring well on standardized tests can create pressure that most adults couldn’t handle. But occasional sadness can also be a symptom of a bigger problem: depression.
Getting the right diagnosis and treatment is the most important thing you can do to help your child. Once you know what the problem is, knowing how supportive to be while letting your young adult child become more independent can be tricky.
Teen Depression and Parental Involvement
When your young adult child struggles with depression, how much and in what ways you help will vary according to the individual. Since everyone has different needs, notes Kimberly Christensen, PsyD, a pediatric psychologist at Sartell Pediatrics in Sartell, Minnesota. “People are so worried these days about being a helicopter parent, but in my experience, it’s totally appropriate to have regular contact with your child,” Christensen says.
“Regularly call or text or check in on certain days or times. Ask how things are going, how they’re eating, are they exercising, what they’re doing on weekends. Those questions can help parents who are pretty in tune with their kids tell if something is going on. Communication really shouldn’t be any different for kids that have depression.” Make sure you treat your adult child like an adult.
“Transition your communication to acknowledge the adult to adult relationship,” says Christensen. “Relate to them on more of an adult level and balance advice and words of encouragement versus support versus independence.”
Resist the urge to overprotect children and bail them out of every problem. “Let them go and take responsibility for themselves. Release them and let them launch,” says Steve Lownes, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Behavioral Healthcare Agency, County of Orange, California.
“They can get pretty dependent on parents, and that’s not healthy either. Give yourself a lot of grace, and your kid too, to make mistakes. Each circumstance is going to be different. You’re going to make mistakes as a parent by either holding on too tight or not tight enough, and the kid is going to make mistakes too.”
Particularly if your child is still living at home, keep a close eye on behavior and habits. “If the child’s habits have gone to pot and the child is still at home, the parent still has some power that can be exercised on behalf of the child’s best interests,” says Lisa Aronson, MSW, PhD, a clinical child psychologist and adjunct faculty at Antioch University in Santa Barbara, California. “The parent can still have rules and bed times and have the child help prepare meals or walk the dog or other things that help her become independent while in the family context.”
Encourage your child to make small changes, one step at a time, Christensen says.
“Becoming independent is a big transition. Break large things up into smaller tasks. For college kids, help them see that they don’t have to make any major life decisions yet and urge them to get involved in activities or join clubs outside their dorms. They need to get comfortable in their environment.”
Depression and Transitioning into Adulthood
Loneliness and social isolation are definitely some of the biggest challenges a depressed young adult may face. More severe challenges include self-harm, suicidal feelings and failing to take medication and/or go to therapy, says Christensen. “Parents should remember there is a typical adjustment to college, even for ‘normal’ kids. There’s excitement and stress, so keep that in mind. Even a child who is depressed may be just stressed by college and some of that stress is good. Parents need to tease out what’s depression and what’s typical stress,” she says.
Supporting independence rather than helicopter parenting is an important part of any young adult’s transition to college, including those who struggle with depression. Young adults need to take ownership of their medication, appointments with therapists and attendance at support groups. It’s OK to ask if these things are happening, and make getting it done easier, but making them happen is up to your young adult child.
Some of the following are ways you can help:
1. Create Structure.
Lownes encourages parents to help their children get on a schedule and build structure into every day. “If my son were depressed,” he said.“I’d make sure he was getting the right food, sleeping properly, exercising, that he was getting outside and taking Vitamin D.
I’d sit him down with a planner and help him structure his life so he could get his work or homework done. Encourage them and let them know you’re there for them.”
2. Be an Active Listener.
“If they call you, listen to what they have to say. Try not to move right into problem-solving,” says Christensen. “Listen and acknowledge that they’re having a hard time first.” Conversely, don’t dwell on problems with your child. Christensen encourages parents not to get caught up in ‘co-rumination,’ with their adult children. Co-rumination happens when people focus on problems and talk about them but don’t solve them.
3. Help Them Get the Help They Need.
Support and encourage therapy and medication, if it’s necessary, and make sure they understand that even though there can be a stigma surrounding these, there shouldn’t be. “Explain that if they have to take medication, so what?” said Lownes. “It’s like having heart disease or diabetes. Normalize what they’re doing and take any stigma out.”Educate yourself about what resources are available for your child and advocate for healthy outside relationships with friends and other family.
Warning Signs of Deepening Depression
Parents should be on the lookout for signs of depression getting worse. Whether their child is at home or away at school or work, intervention may be necessary. Some of these warning signs include:
- Dropping grades. If your child’s academic performance is declining, if they are skipping class and spending too much time alone in their room or if they’re coming home every weekend, these could be signals of worsening depression.
- Using or increasing use of alcohol and/or drugs. Young adults may use alcohol or drugs as coping mechanisms when depression is getting worse.
- Unhealthy eating or sleeping patterns, including weight gain or loss. Both unhealthy eating habits and significant weight gain or loss are signs your young adult child is struggling.
- An increase in physical complaints. Increasing depression can often manifest itself in physical symptoms. If your child complains of chronic or worsening headaches, digestive issues, backaches, insomnia or feeling tired all the time, these are physical indications that her depression may be out of control.
- Communicating hopelessness or being fixated on past failures. If they constantly comment that they never do anything right, fail at everything or are increasingly sensitive, worsening depression could be the cause.1
When to Intervene
If your child is in college, remember that you can contact people at the school, such as resident advisers in the dorm, the college counseling center, or even the dean of students, with your concerns. “Accessing the counseling center is good to ask what recommendations they have,” says Christiansen. “Privacy laws prevent many professionals from sharing things with you, but that doesn’t mean you as a parent can’t call and say you’ve heard suicidal ideation. They can’t acknowledge that the kid is a client, but they can always take the information. This applies to any clinic.”
The Importance of Self-Care
Dealing with a depressed child is difficult, no matter their age. Recognizing your need for rest and respite from the day-to-day challenges is an important part of helping your young adult child. If you’re exhausted and have nothing left to give, you cannot care for your family.
“When you get on an airplane, they talk about putting the oxygen mask on yourself first so you can help others. That applies here too,” says Lownes. “I would also encourage parents to be in therapy or seek out help. Depression is like a giant vacuum that can really suck you in.”
Finding Help for Your Young Adult Child
If your young adult child struggles with depression, we are here for you. Call our helpline, 678-251-3189, 24 hours a day to speak to an admissions coordinator about available treatment options.
1 “College Depression: What Parents Need to Know.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 2 Sept. 2016.