What I learned about parenting a child who has depression
I was in elementary school when my grandmother took me to my first therapist. The woman sat across from me, running through a list of questions like, “Do you ever think of hurting yourself or others?” My grandmother patted my hand and whispered how brave I was between answers. From that moment until now, I’ve seen over a dozen therapists, psychiatrists, and counselors. I’ve been on countless medications, participated in nearly every variation of therapy (including group and EMDR), and I still find myself struggling sometimes to find what works for me, consistently.
I reflect on my journey often, as my (almost) 13-year-old daughter battles similar struggles: She has depression.
Since it’s taken hold, it has stolen pieces of who she once was, turning her into a version of herself that eerily mirrors my own disorders—the disorders of every woman (and some of the men) in our family.
As a child, I endured more than my fair share of traumas. From my parents’ bitter divorce to sexual and emotional abuse to learning of a biological father kept secret from me, my daughter and I share no common threads when comparing our personal histories. One can trace my origin story and pinpoint exact moments when my obsessive-compulsive disorder developed, when the post-traumatic stress and generalized anxiety disorders set in, and when my clinical depression took shape.
My daughter’s depression isn’t so simply traced. Her childhood has been good. Solid. She’s had two loving parents, support, and encouragement. She’s been given every opportunity to succeed and thrive. Yet, depression doesn’t care about any of that. It’s taken me awhile to understand that, while circumstances surrounding her depression are sometimes mystifying compared to my own, her feelings are no less valid or real.
My mother also battled bouts of depression and, at times when I was young, mania. I’ve become something of a pro when it comes to learning the signs and symptoms to look out for. My grandmother was the same towards me while growing up, often offering me anxiety medicine when I worked myself into a tizzy. My aunt and cousins have all had similar struggles—this poison inside of us all—with drastically different reasons connected to each manifestation of it. My brother suffers from PTSD, also for different reasons, but my point is, the branches of our mental health tree have deep roots. My mother’s anxiety and depression—things she didn’t know how to manage back then—often became yardsticks held between us, keeping her safe from getting too close or feeling too much. That’s something I never understood—until becoming a parent myself.
There’s something to be said about the vulnerability parenting requires. You have to be willing to talk about the hard things, the things you’ve kept buried for years and years and years.
The things that cause great discomfort. The things that normally force you to retreat. You have to show feelings, and teach your children that having those feelings is normal and okay; not to stuff them down and pretend they don’t exist. My mother and I struggled for many years because her repressed emotions from different events bubbled to the surface many times over. Her depression built a wall around her, pushing me farther away each time. Every now and then, I notice myself doing the same to my daughter, or worse—her doing it to me.
I couldn’t have known in elementary school that the stress my mother endured while trying to help me when she didn’t yet know how to help herself. A single mother with two kids, we lacked money and resources. We wore thrift store clothes and ate free lunches at school. We lived on the side of town that kept you up at night, that made you fear leaving your windows open or doors unlocked. The difficult things that happened to me didn’t happen because my mother was too depressed to pay attention to the things plaguing me. Now that I see my life through a different lens, I understand that she did the best she could, with what she knew, just as I’m trying to do with my children, even under drastically different circumstances.
My daughter’s depression came in waves just as adolescence set in. It was around the time we made a big out-of-state move where she left her friends and everything joyous behind, in exchange for the chance for something new. As someone who’s always had to self-advocate, to pay attention to my own warning signs and ask for help when the weight of the depression becomes too much to bear, I still didn’t immediately recognize her signs. Rather, maybe I didn’t want to. Doing so meant confronting my own demons, again, walking through my past, again, and navigating our complex family tree littered with mental illness, again. I wanted her to rise above it, to never have to go through what we have. After all, she’d been raised in a totally different environment.
It wasn’t until a significant trauma in the fall of 2018 that I saw my and my daughter’s lives fully mirrored. As I fought my way through the deepest depression of my life, I saw her doing the same. I knew my that daughter had to see me handle our messes differently than my own mother if future generations should be changed. I’m not perfect. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. But one of the best things I’ve ever done as a parent is turn towards the pain, not away. To show my daughter (and my son) that this too shall pass. I choose to model how to work through traumas. I quite literally take their hands and sit with them during their own therapy visits. I show them not to shrink, not to succumb, and to always fight for the light. It’s not something I learned from my mother—I learned it from myself with echoes of my grandmother whispering, “You’re so brave” and “I’m proud of you,” forevermore.
I’ve learned a lot in my (near) 13 years of parenting. Things I couldn’t have learned by watching my mother. Things I couldn’t have imagined dealing with or talking about or fighting through. When you have a child born into a family where mental illness is omnipresent, you can’t sit back and hope they’ll figure it out. No matter how strong my own depression or anxiety may be at times, parenting isn’t just about raising my children to be self-sufficient adults. It’s about nurturing their emotional health and teaching them how to seek the light when all seems dark. It’s about showing them how to reach out even when they don’t want to. And, above all else, it’s about reminding them that mental illness doesn’t make them any less worthy of love, understanding, or compassion.
My daughter may struggle with depression just as I have (and sometimes still do), but it’s not the end of a story; it’s the continuation. We have to find a way to put one foot in front of the other and prioritize self-care if we’re to ever truly care for anyone else. I learned this by watching my mom struggle to connect, and through the years as I tried to find common ground with my daughter. One thing I do know, for my daughter and for any others suffering in silence, is that the sun will shine again. I am proof.