Parents: Isolation is the path to depression in children

October is “National Hug a Texas Chef Month.” It is simultaneously “National Caramel Month,” “National Toilet Tank Repair Month,” and it’s one of two “National Papaya Months” (at the risk of stating the obvious, the other is June). Really. I couldn’t make this stuff up.

Never wishing to offend Texas chefs, neglect the importance of caramel, ignore toilet tank maintenance, or minimize the twice annual celebration of everyone’s favorite fruit, October is perhaps more notably “National Depression Education and Awareness Month.” I’d like to do my part:

If you think that “depression” is a fancy word for sadness, you’re not alone, but you are wrong. People who are depressed may feel sad, but they’re just as likely to feel irritable, distracted, annoyed, exhausted or anxious. Depression is more accurately described as the powerful and pervasive experience of one or more of three states. Ask yourself:

Do I feel hopeless? Hopeless is the feeling that the future is blank at best, and black more likely. If you cannot identify anything that you’re looking forward to, no matter how small, you may be experiencing hopelessness. If you have no goals, aspirations, hopes or desires. You may be experiencing hopelessness. This is much more than simply feeling bored or aimless. Hopelessness is a “why-bother? I’m going to fail anyway” feeling that undermines motivation.

Do I feel helpless? Helpless is a feeling of impotence. It’s the feeling that nothing that you do matters. Helplessness is a profound resignation. It’s a belief that the course of events is set and immutable, so why bother? Why argue? Why even act?

Do I feel worthless? This feeling, perhaps more than any other, cuts to the bone. Feeling unworthy of love, feeling that you are a burden on those around you, or feeling that others’ care and kindness are undeserved all communicate an absence of personal value. Zero self-worth.

Together, hopelessness, helplessness and worthlessness can leave a person feeling like gravity is pulling a million times harder to keep him or her in bed. The can make every breath, every action, and particularly every relationship excruciatingly painful. Appetite changes. Sleeping changes. Formerly pleasurable activities are ignored and forgotten. That “why bother?” feeling can take root and grow overnight into “why bother living,” leading some people toward suicide.

Or are you one of those people who think that depression (and mental illness more generally) is evidence of weakness? If you think somewhere deep inside your head that depression is laziness or entitlement, or self-indulgence, then you’ve never been there. Depression is a neurochemical event. Genetics, DNA and experience conspire in the brain to make measurable, physical changes. Depression is very real. Depression is epidemic. And your children are not immune.

Depression in children is often marked by the same hopeless, helpless, worthless feelings, but hidden behind angry, pouting silences, tantrums and behind slammed doors. Depression in children is complicated by the rapid-fire changes that we expect of children any way: the rages of the toddler years, the stresses associated with school, and the hormones associated with puberty. Infants can become depressed in response to profound loss. Grade schoolers can develop depression in response to significant family change, bullying, school failure and trauma. Teenagers can … well … some would say that no adolescence is complete without some degree of depression.

What can you do as a healthy parent? The best defense is a good and proactive offense. We know that regular exercise, a healthy diet, and adequate, routine sleep are necessary, even if they’re not sufficient. Relationships are critically important, as well. Isolation is a path to depression. Routine, constructive, playful time with healthy peers is its antidote.

More than that? You can talk to your kids. I don’t mean bellowing upstairs, demanding that your son or daughter come down for a lecture. I mean regular, casual, non-judgmental time together. Put away all the screens. Take out the earbuds. Go for a walk or a drive. Play a game together. Leave your needs elsewhere. Take the time to be in your child’s world without becoming an intruder. Learn her vocabulary. Listen to her music. Know her friends by name, her classes and who teaches them, her favorite Pokemon card or football team or ice cream flavor. Talk openly, but don’t keep secrets. Share your feelings and welcome hers. Be human together for a bit, before you resume nagging about homework and chores.

And you see signs of depression? Check in with the pediatrician and the school counselor. Talk about your concerns frankly, without embarrassing her. Admit to the times that you’ve felt similarly and talk about what helped. Reach out to a skilled, child- and family-centered mental health professional.

Together, we can make October National “I like me” month.”

Parenting Pointer

Err on the side of caution.

When it comes to safety, I would always prefer that you be embarrassed for overreacting, than grief-stricken for under-reacting.

If you believe that someone you know is suicidal or intentional harming (cutting, burning, hitting) herself, you must not wait to act. You must not shrug it off as a one-time occurrence or accept half-hearted, embarrassed and pressured promises to be safe. You must reach out to a skilled mental health professional now.

And if you’re put on hold or the first appointment is 10 weeks from Thursday? Advocate calmly but clearly for safety today. In emergency situations, dial 9-1-1 or go the local hospital emergency room. Enlist the pediatrician and the school and the coach and the tutor all to support your child and keep her safe.

Dr. Benjamin Garber, Ph.D., is a New Hampshire-licensed psychologist and parenting coordinator. He writes and speaks internationally on subjects concerning child and family development. His latest book is “Holding Tight/Letting Go” available from unhookedbooks.com. Learn more about Garber and his child-centered services at HealthyParent.com. Find a collection of Garber’s popular press articles on his blog at bdgarberphd.wordpress.com. Garber welcomes your comments at papaben@healthyparent.com.