I was about 9 years old the first time depression reared its ugly head. I didn’t know it at the time, of course. My little child’s mind had no comprehension of what depression was. I don’t think I’d ever even heard the word. I just knew that I was sad. I’m not sure what caused it; maybe home life, maybe school, maybe just luck of the draw when it came to brain chemistry. It could have been any or all of those things.
My parents never attempted to hide the stresses of real life from us. Although I agree with that philosophy in general and incorporate a certain degree of transparency in our parenting style- I feel it’s a disservice to raise children in a perfect bubble and then release them into a cold and stressful world- my brother and I grew up in an environment that was filled with strife and worry about such things as bills from our earliest memories. My husband and I don’t involve our kids in conversations about how we’re going to make it through the month, but we let them know that if they want something it has to be saved for; that money doesn’t grow on trees.
Our daughter has always been a bold, loud, happy and resilient spirit. While she might pout or sulk about being admonished or denied something, it was usually short lived. She’s venturing into preteen territory, with all the hormones and changes therein. She’s been moody, even more explosive than usual, weepy, distant. We’ve had a lot of life changes over the last year or so, and it’s clear now that that, combined with her making her way toward womanhood, has taken a toll.
I’m ashamed to admit that I hadn’t realized just how much my child was hurting. I was made ear-splittingly aware last month, when she finally had the break down we all need at one point or another. The screaming. Lord. The screaming. At first I got angry. How dare my child talk to me like this?! I am the ADULT… But then I saw it. Her. Me. She was me 20 years ago. She was me, now. Finally unable to hold it in for one more moment. Cup running over with stress and grief and resentment and pain.
I decided in that moment to try to be the parent I’d needed then; the friend I needed now. I did have to tell her, gently, to lower her vice a few times. Her brother was already in bed, and I was honestly afraid she was going to permanently damage my hearing. (Seriously. That’s not a joke.) She raged for several minutes, I didn’t keep track. She told me all about myself, and about how much she’d been hurting, everyday, and of her jealousy of people who are happy, especially her younger brother, because what right did he have to be so senselessly happy? It was truly heartbreaking.
When she finally ran out of words, we stood there in the kitchen, both of us with tearstained faces, both of us out of breath, and just looked at each other. I didn’t know what to say, other than I Love You and I’m Sorry. I’d never been allowed to so much as sigh heavily without fear of punishment growing up. I didn’t know what to do. How does a parent react to this? How do I help? What do I do?
We sat on the couch for about half an hour, up past bedtime, talking. There were a few more tears and raised voices- from both of us- but I did my best. I have anxiety and a temper, too. But I tried to be the parent I wished I’d had. I apologized for taking her for granted, for making her feel overlooked, for other parental failings, big and small. I promised her I’d try harder. I’d do better. That I’d get my own shit under control so I could help her with hers. I assured her that there was no shame in what she was feeling, and that it was something that we could work through. That she wasn’t alone.
The next week I made an appointment to see a therapist. This week I’m going to make her one. We both need help. We both need tools. As Heather Thomas has said before, “When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” I want to break the cycle of hammering away blindly at problems and hoping they’ll go away.
Teen and preteen depression is a big deal. One study found that 5.7% of participants evaluated that were found with depression were 12 years old. My daughter is 11. Their study didn’t include children that young. While both girls and boys experience depression, girls are particularly at risk.
I have no doubt that there are other factors in my daughter’s depression- school, friends, even the current political climate, of which she is more aware than I’d like. I can’t do anything about those outside influences. I can, however, do my best. I can make sure that she feels safe and loved and heard within her own home. I will take care of myself, so I can take care of her, because nothing breaks a mother’s heart like hearing your child ask, “Mama, why am I sad?”
I might not have all the answers, but I will be part of the solution.