3 Things Not to Say to a Child With Depression
I’m not a parent, but I was once a child… and a precocious one at that. Growing up, I was introspective, intelligent and ambitious. I enrolled in gifted and talented programs, pursued extracurricular activities and did every resumé-building activity under the sun. All of that looks good on paper, but ultimately, it was a recipe for developing perfectionism, anxiety and depression.
Imagine my parents’ surprise when their A-plus, overachieving child started showing signs of anxiety and depression. They were doing their best, and I was doing my best. So, what went wrong?
My parents grew up dirt poor, and I grew up in the lower-middle class (aka, still poor). At 5 years old, I learned not to ask for things at the store. By age 9, I felt like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. I remember telling my younger brother I couldn’t play with him because I had “responsibilities.” He didn’t even know what that word meant, but I did. My responsibilities included cleaning my room (which was already tidy), poring over my homework (which I’d already completed) and doing everything in my power to not be a burden to my parents (which seemed like a never-ending list).
There was no room for error. There was no grace for mistakes. Everything had to be absolutely perfect — I had to be absolutely perfect — because my parents already had enough problems without worrying about me. However, my parents never said I needed to be perfect. I took on this pressure on my own because I saw how much they struggled financially and in their marriage. I didn’t want to contribute to their pain. I didn’t want to be at fault.
I’m not blaming my parents. This isn’t the time to play the blame game. We each have our issues, and I’ve had enough therapy to know we’re each responsible for our own behavior. Even so, there are a few issues I’d like to address. There were certain things adults said to me when I tried to talk about my depression that didn’t help. In fact, their comments really hurt.
Here are three things you should never say to a child with depression.
1. “You need to grow up.”
At 13, my best friend at the time staged an intervention. She sat me down in front of her mother because I was terrified to tell my own mom how I was feeling. I felt old, aged beyond my years. I’d lost the will to live. I remember telling my friend’s mom that if life was about getting good grades, doing a good job and always being a good person, then I didn’t want to be alive anymore. What was the point?
My friend’s mom looked me in the eyeballs and said, “You don’t know what depression is. You need to grow up.”
I felt so misunderstood. I wondered if she’d actually listened to anything I’d said. With all of the pressure I was putting on myself, I was already too grown up for my own good. That was the problem. Getting older wasn’t going to solve anything.
2. “You need to pray about it.”
I’d like to say that my middle-school intervention was a wake-up call — that everything got better and I regained my zest for life — but I’d be lying if I said that, and this is about telling the truth about what it’s like to have depression as a child. My depression didn’t get better. It got worse. By age 16, I was engaging in self-harm and planning my suicide. I was scared I might actually follow through with my plans.
I finally sat down with my stepdad because I still couldn’t tell my mom how I was feeling. I’d spent my whole life trying to be perfect. I didn’t want to disappoint her — or worse, worry her. With my stepdad taking an early retirement due to health issues, my mom had enough issues to deal with. She was the sole wage-earner for our family of five. I didn’t want to add anything else to her plate.
Talking to my stepdad was a tough conversation. I knew we were broke. I’d known my whole life. I’d stopped asking for what I needed because I knew we couldn’t afford it. But when I spoke with my stepdad, I asked if we could put together the funds for me to see a psychiatrist. I couldn’t take it anymore and I needed help.
My stepdad listened. He was quiet. For a moment, I thought someone finally understood. Then he said, “Why don’t you pray about it?”
I felt so defeated. I’d grown up in an evangelical Christian home. I knew all about religion. If praying was the answer, wouldn’t I have been cured by then?
I told him I’d already prayed about it — that I’d been praying about it and nothing had changed. He nodded and said, “Maybe you need to pray about it more, or pray about it harder.”
Needless to say, nothing changed.
3. “You have so much to be grateful for.”
My depression reached the point where I felt like a walking zombie. I remember telling my best friend at the time (a different friend than the one who staged the intervention) that my depression felt like watching a movie of my life. The bad news was that I didn’t know the script and the director never said, “Cut!” It was an endless reel of a bad film I couldn’t turn off no matter how hard I tried.
Before going off to college, I finally told my mom how I was feeling. I confessed how, even though I did well in school, I was totally stressed out. I told her how I struggled with severe anxiety and depression to the point of having panic attacks and wanting to hurt myself. It was becoming increasingly difficult to make it through each day.
My mom cried when I told her about my depression. I knew she would. She felt guilty, like it was her fault, that she’d somehow failed as a parent.
“What do you have to be depressed about?” she cried. “You have so much to be grateful for.”
I knew that children were starving in Africa, and there were other people out there who had it much worse than I did. But that didn’t make things any better for me. Other people’s problems didn’t take my pain away.
Parents, please listen to your child.
These are all well-meaning comments intended to provide a dose of common sense or a bit of spiritual support, but they’re not helpful. They’re damaging, invalidating and disempowering. These remarks indicate the need for education regarding mental health issues. As a culture, we must cultivate a deeper sense of empathy, along with better listening skills, if we have any hope of helping those around us.
Without access to the care I needed, I continued to struggle with anxiety and depression well into my 20s. My depression negatively impacted my ability to cope with school, work and eventually my marriage. I often wonder how my life would have turned out differently if I’d gotten the mental health care I needed as a child, or at the very least if the adults in my life had listened, really listened, when I said I was depressed.
If you’re a parent or an adult in another child’s life, please take the time to listen. Don’t think that just because you’re an adult, you have all the answers. Often, as adults, we’re more messed up than we realize and we don’t know how our words can wreck a child’s life. We have the power to make or break the people who reach out to us for help.
Like I said in the beginning, I don’t have kids yet. But if I did, or if a child in my life tried to tell me how they’re feeling, I’d listen. And when they’d had an opportunity to share everything on their heart, I’d let them know I understand. I’d say, “That sounds tough. I’m sorry you’re going through that. I know how you feel. I felt that way too.”
We don’t heal someone by trying to fix them, telling them they’re wrong or wishing their issues away. We heal them by listening, showing empathy and just being with them. Our presence is more powerful than we know.
Follow this journey on the author’s blog.
Photo by Joseph Gonzalez on Unsplash