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As the mother of a high school senior who has struggled with depression for nearly 10 years, I’m anxious about how I can help her adjust to life on her own without smothering her or somehow enabling failure. Knowing exactly how supportive to be, while still being somewhat hands-off, can be tricky. How involved should parents be? What can parents do to help their young adult children be independent while still remaining supportive? What warning signs of deepening depression should parents look for? When is an intervention appropriate?
How much and in what ways you help your young adult will vary according to the individual, since everyone has different needs, notes Kimberly Christensen, PsyD, a pediatric psychologist at Sartell Pediatrics in Sartell, Minnesota. “People are so worried these days about being a helicopter parent, but in my experience, it’s totally appropriate to have regular contact with your child,” Christensen says. “Regularly call or text or check in on certain days or times. Ask how things are going, how they’re eating, are they exercising, what they’re doing on weekends. Those questions can help parents who are pretty in tune with their kids tell if something is going on. Communication really shouldn’t be any different for kids that have depression.”
Make sure you treat your adult child like an adult.
“Transition your communication to acknowledge the adult to adult relationship,” says Christensen. “Relate to them on more of an adult level and balance advice and words of encouragement versus support versus independence.”
Resist the urge to overprotect children and bail them out of every problem. “Let them go and take responsibility for themselves. Release them and let them launch,” says Steve Lownes, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Behavioral Healthcare Agency, County of Orange, California.
Particularly if your child is still living at home, keep a close eye on behavior and habits. “If the child’s habits have gone to pot and the child is still at home, the parent still has some power that can be exercised on behalf of the child’s best interests,” says Lisa Aronson, MSW, PhD, a clinical child psychologist and adjunct faculty at Antioch University in Santa Barbara, California. “The parent can still have rules and bed times and have the child help prepare meals or walk the dog or other things that help her become independent while in the family context.”
Encourage your child to make small changes, one step at a time, Christensen says. “Becoming independent is a big transition. Break large things up into smaller tasks. For college kids, help them see that they don’t have to make any major life decisions yet and urge them to get involved in activities or join clubs outside their dorms. They need to get comfortable in their environment.”
Potential Challenges in Transitioning into Adulthood
Loneliness and social isolation are definitely some of the biggest challenges a depressed young adult may face. “The person may be feeling depressed and unsure about themselves and getting negative feedback, so they isolate themselves. They stay in their dorm room or apartment,” says Christensen. Young adults may fail to leave the nest effectively because they are afraid of being lonely, adds Aronson.
Anxiety, lack of energy, and even turning to drugs to cope and stimulate energy are other potential pitfalls in transitioning, Lownes says.
More severe challenges include self-harm, suicidal feelings and failing to take medication and/or go to therapy, says Christensen. “Parents should remember there is a typical adjustment to college, even for ‘normal’ kids. There’s excitement and stress, so keep that in mind. Even a child who is depressed may be just stressed by college and some of that stress is good. Parents need to tease out what’s depression and what’s typical stress,” she says.
How to Help Support Independence
Help your child get on a schedule and build structure into her life, Lownes says. “If my son were depressed, I’d make sure he was getting the right food, sleeping properly, exercising, that he was getting outside and taking Vitamin D, and I’d sit him down with a planner and help him structure his life so he could get his work or homework done,” he says. “Encourage them and let them know you’re there for them.”
Particularly if your child isn’t succeeding, make sure there aren’t other issues going on. “It’s not bad to get a psychological evaluation,” says Aronson. “The child may be cognitively impaired or have a psychological illness that you’re not seeing. If the child isn’t moving forward, testing can help the child and parent understand some impairment they may have that needs some kind of support.”
Be an active listener.
“If they call you, listen to what they have to say. Try not to move right into problem-solving,” says Christensen. “Listen and acknowledge that they’re having a hard time first.”
Conversely, don’t dwell on problems with your child. “There’s a new phenomenon called ‘co-rumination,’ and it’s what happens when people focus on problems and talk about the problems and don’t solve them. It brings people closer together, but it also makes them unhappy because they focus on the negative,” Christensen says. “Sometimes parents can become that co-ruminator with their children, so they need to evaluate what’s true and eventually get into problem-solving.”
Consider role-playing or practicing for difficult life tasks, such as job interviews or dealing with peer pressure away from home, suggests Aronson. “It’s very reassuring to a young adult who is feeling vulnerable to have parents showing that they’re aware of what they’re going through and to give them some advice about mastering what could be scary situations.” Be open and honest with your child about the difficulties you notice. For instance, “if they have a fear of driving, tell them you’ll help them,” Aronson says.
Support and encourage therapy and medication, if it’s necessary, and make sure they understand that even though there can be a stigma surrounding these, there shouldn’t be, Lownes says. “Explain that if they have to take medication, so what? It’s like having heart disease or diabetes. Normalize what they’re doing and take any stigma out,” he says.
Educate yourself about what resources are available for your child, whether they are at college or at home, Christensen says. “It’s totally appropriate to ask about the services available if your child is struggling,” she says. “Then you can urge your child to access those things, if necessary.”
Advocate for outside relationships with friends and other family, as long as they are healthy, says Aronson. “If a friend is a healthy influence, invite the friend over when your child expects to feel lonely, or when the parents go out,” she says. “Anything that’s going to keep your child connected.”
Warning Signs of Deepening Depression
Parents should be on the lookout for signs of depression getting worse, whether their child is at home or away at school or work, so they can intervene, if necessary. “It’s unique for every person, and different things can be red flags for different people,” says Christensen.
Dropping grades. “If you start to hear that your child’s academic performance is declining, they’re not attending classes, their motivation is low, and they’re spending lots of time in their room or coming home every weekend, those could be warning signs that the depression is getting worse,” Christensen says.
Using or increasing use of alcohol and/or drugs. “These are coping mechanisms people may use to deal with depression,” says Lownes.
Unhealthy eating or sleeping patterns, including weight gain or loss. “These are physical signs of worsening depression,” Christensen says.
An increase in physical complaints. “I’ve seen with college kids lots of headaches, bathroom problems, back aches,” says Christensen. “On the extreme level, a decline in personal self-care where you can tell they’re not taking care of themselves.”
Communicating hopelessness or being fixated on past failures. “Saying they never do anything right or they fail at everything, or showing extreme sensitivity are signs of the depression getting worse as well,” notes Christensen. “Rarely do they say they want to kill themselves,” says Lownes. “They’ll usually say, ‘What’s the point?’ As it gets more serious, they may start giving away some of their favorite things and cutting off relationships.”
When to Intervene
“There’s a different tolerance level for every parent,” Christensen says. “If your child is suicidal or self-harming, absolutely there’s a call for intervention. If drugs and alcohol are affecting their lives, that’s another time, as is failing out of school.”
If your child is away at college, remember that you can contact people at the school, such as resident advisers in the dorm, the college counseling center, or even the dean of students, with your concerns, says Christensen. “Accessing the counseling center is good to ask what recommendations they have. Privacy laws prevent many professionals from sharing things with you, but that doesn’t mean you as a parent can’t call and say you’ve heard suicidal ideation. They can’t acknowledge that the kid is a client, but they can always take the information. This applies to any clinic,” she says.
Remember to Take Care of Yourself Too
Worrying over and helping out a young adult child with depression takes its toll on parents. “Parents need self-care and to draw some boundaries themselves,” says Lownes. “When you get on an airplane, they talk about putting the oxygen mask on yourself first so you can help others. That applies here too. I would also encourage parents to be in therapy or seek out help. If they have a depressed kid, they need help too. Depression is like a giant vacuum that can really suck you in.” WebMD, The Balanced Mind and Mental Health America all have online support groups, and many communities have local support groups as well.