The holiday season can be harder than other times of the year for people who are depressed. When someone is struggling with depression he feels estranged from himself and the world. Then, when that world temporarily gets even more unlike him (i.e., emphasizing cheer), his sense of estrangement can worsen. For this and other reasons, parenting a teen who is depressed during the holiday season can especially challenging.
Before I offer some tips, let me offer a very important proviso. Imagine you had a kid with significant dental pain and you wondered, “what meals should I prepare that best accommodate her condition?” That seems like a useful question, but only if your daughter is receiving, or is about to receive, professional dental care. Without the dental care, cooking interventions would probably be like re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. It is the same thing with depression in a teenager. The tips below are best considered and rendered within a context of a kid already getting good mental health care (e.g., an evidence based talking therapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or interpersonal therapy).
That said, here are seven tips to consider:
• Collaborate with your teen, and ideally your teen’s treatment provider, regarding a holiday plan (e.g., which activities to do and which to set aside). Your teen’s depression would have him bail out on most, if not all, activities and that is usually a mistake. Likewise, you may be tempted to insist on 100% participation, and that can be a mistake as well. A skilled therapist’s expert assistance can increase the odds that you’ll find the adaptive middle ground.
• Do what you do for your teen without the expectation that such will cheer her up. We parent-lunatics hurt when our kid hurts, and often worse. So, it’s very natural to try to cheer up a depressed teen. However, if the primary intention is to bring about a better mood it’s easy to become frustrated and worsen the stress on our teen. Better to make the effort without the expectation of an outcome.
• Accept your teen’s moods as they come. These moods can be like the weather. Sure, you’ve laid out a nice picnic and here comes a rainstorm, and that stinks. You can rage at the weather (and that can take many, many forms) or pitch a tent, realizing that the weather is outside your control, and enjoy what is possible to enjoy.
• Resist trying to reassure your teen out of a negative thought. While such encouragement can often help someone who is not depressed, to a depressed person reassurances can sound like, “you don’t have anything to feel sad about, so stop it,” which can then cause the depressed person to become even more adamant about his negative thinking. This is another instance where your teen’s therapist can be very helpful in coaching you how to respond (e.g., “I think that’s your depression convincing you of a painful lie. I believe the reality isn’t nearly as painful as your depression’s lie); the technique of thought testing can also be very helpful here (e.g., see my parenting book or search using that term above).
• Don’t allow extended family to hassle your teen regarding his depression. Loved ones can say some pretty hurtful things in their desire to be helpful. Your teen’s therapist can help you to figure out your methods for doing this in a way that respects your teen’s privacy and independence.
• Regularly let your teen know, without overdoing it, that you love her, that she is not alone and you understand that it’s terrible to be feeling what she is feeling, especially during the holidays.
• If your teen is or could be suicidal, get him in front of an expert ASAP and don’t leave him alone until you do. Consider this to be a life-or-death emergency as you certainly don’t want your baby to be one of the two million U.S. teens who attempt suicide each year.
Geez. Tough stuff huh? But, hopefully there’s a helpful tip or two here for you. Regardless, I hope you and yours have a wonderful holiday season!