What to Do When Your Great Kid Displays Dark Depression

This post was originally published April 29, 2015. I have updated it extensively and republished it on May 10, 2016.

It is often very confusing and frightening to parents when their teenager is exhibiting self-destructive behaviors. Parents can become reluctant to set limits because they’re afraid they’ll make things worse.

Here is the story of a family I worked with recently who exemplify this dilemma.

(Of course, I’ve changed their names…)

Is Depression Really a Disease?

Emma’s parents got a call from one of Emma’s friends on a Saturday night.

Emma, a tall, slight, 15-year-old sophomore, had passed out drunk and vomited at a friend’s house — where there was a party that Emma didn’t have permission to attend.

Being concerned parents, they’d immediately gone to pick her up, and then stayed up with her all night, to make sure she was safe. They left me a voicemail message the next morning, and I arranged to see all three of them Monday evening.

As we talked together, Emma revealed that she had been smoking marijuana and drinking, although not frequently. She had also been making shallow cuts on her arms. She was quite forthright in telling us that she didn’t see the point to life, and she even said she felt like giving up.

Emma’s parents talked about their struggle with Emma since middle school, and the history of depression in the family. They admitted they knew that Emma was obviously depressed, but she had refused to go to counseling or take the medication her pediatrician had prescribed.

It was clear to me that Emma was a bright, talented, attractive, quite emotionally sensitive — and yes — a depressed teen girl.

Meet Emma... a bright, talented, attractive, sensitive and DEPRESSED teenage girl.Click To Tweet

But… is depression really a disease?

And even if it is, is it one we need to be afraid of?

This is where I question a point-of-view that is prevalent but can actually do more harm than good.

Self-Valuing vs. Self-Destructive Choices

Emma had been avoiding all school-based activities and had dropped her piano lessons, even though she was a gifted musician. Her art and poetry writing had become very dark. Her parents were afraid to push her, since she was obviously depressed.

Do we stop parenting our kids because they’re depressed?

Because that’s in fact what Emma’s parents had done.

Emma’s parents — out of concern for her feelings — had let the fact that Emma was shy, sensitive and depressed keep them from setting limits, building a structure and having clear expectations for Emma. They didn’t realize that they could continue to do all of that, and still remain highly supportive of her.

I went on to meet with Emma by herself and learned more about the issues she was struggling with emotionally, socially and with her family.

We worked on emotional management skills, and I helped Emma to understand her sensitive temperament as a gift that she can use with great impact in the world. We focused on clarifying the difference between self-valuing and self-destructive choices.

Let's clarify the difference between self-valuing and self-destructive choices.Click To Tweet

We continued to have family sessions as well.

I let Emma’s parents know that they didn’t need to be afraid of Emma’s depression. I helped them understand that Emma would be a lot less depressed if she learned to make self-valuing choices and accepted her temperament as a positive part of herself.

Emma and her parents needed to see Emma as having far more capability and resilience than she had previously tapped into. Her parents needed to hold her to higher standards.

Since she hadn’t developed the maturity to provide that standard for herself yet, she needed her parents’ limits and standards and faith in her, so she could grow and build faith in herself and her future.

Help your teenage son or daughter to build faith in him or herself and the future.Click To Tweet

Emma seemed truly happy to have all of this out in the open and to receive some direction from her parents and from me.

We talked about treatment options that included…

  • going to a therapeutic boarding school,
  • individual and family therapy,
  • and possibly even medication.

What we all agreed on was that Emma was a fabulous kid and needed to discover who she is, by investing in who she is.

Continuing on the path she had been traveling was no longer an option.

Choosing the Right Path

We decided to give counseling a chance and see if we could make progress.

We worked together over the next year or so.

At first the going was slow, since Emma did not have many positive elements in her life. She had a hard time seeing how things could be better, and she continued to have a pretty dark outlook.

Even under these continuing challenging circumstances, Emma’s parents impressed me with their commitment to Emma and the way they rose to the challenge.

They were understandably very worried, but stayed the course. They were absolutely supportive to Emma emotionally, but set strict guidelines that Emma was required to follow.

Emma made her displeasure known, but as she gradually became involved again in healthy activities, and connected with kids who shared her interests, her mood and attitude picked up.

When Emma started looking forward to things and shared her accomplishments with pride, we knew we were on the right path, and Emma was solidly on hers.

Please consider sharing this post. Doing so may help a teen in need.

Have you had your own experience with dark, teenage depression? I encourage you to post it in the comments below.

Are you worried there’s a Control Battle going on in your home? Download my free self-assessment checklist below.

Thanks for reading!

Posted in Families, Republished.