Dr. Drew: What does depression usually look like in younger children?
Meredith: You might see the classic symptoms like loss of interest in regular activities, or other things that you might see, you know, fatigue, difficulty sleeping or maybe sleeping too much. But, one thing with kids, and even adults, too, but a lot of kids you’ll see irritability. That seems to be a really big deal. A lot of times, we might mistake that for a bad attitude or, “Oh my gosh. They’re so troubled,” and it could be depression. Looking at because depression is impacting our nervous system, so a lot of times we see kids that are either hyperaroused or hypo aroused. The ones that I’m most concerned about are the ones that are checked out, or hypo aroused because they have this … It’s almost as if they believe that the problem’s bigger than they are. At least with hyper-aroused, you’re seeing some energy, some drive, some anger to try to fight back against some of these conditions. Whereas once you go into hypo, you know, then it feels almost like a kind of giving up spot. It’s a little bit harder to try to activate them again out of it.
With some kids, I’ve seen some that look checked out that maybe, you know, failing grades in school. With little kids, you know, their themes in play is something I look for in the playroom. You know, how is the play? Is there this underlying [inaudible 00:03:28] so I’m looking the whole time for … I’m not interpreting exactly what they’re playing, but I am watching theme in a way, but I’m also watching the energy of it. The energy says a lot, and it’s something that you start to feel. You can kind of feel if your kid is down or really struggling, right? You start hearing more negative self-talk. You might see them easily discouraged, giving up. But in play, you might feel this active, underlying anger, yet their play seems really dull or repetitive. So, yeah. Anyway, I don’t know if that answers that for you.
Dr. Drew: What does it look like for a teenager who is checking out?
Meredith: On the really serious spectrum I see that they seem to be more involved in a virtual world. In a reality, that’s not theirs a lot of concerns and fears no matter … Just this sense of almost this dramatic sadness or they’re withdrawn quite a bit, some of them start using drugs, grades dropping once again, cutting, that’s a big one, self-harm, those are things that are seen, and then, when they’re starting to check out, there’s a normal point of teenagers, they-I remember my bedroom. My bedroom was so cool, I loved having my room, my own space. I decorated the way I wanted, I wanted to be in there by myself, but that’s different than the depression piece because I was still interacting with friends right?
With teenagers that are really experiencing depression, they’re holding themselves up, while they’re not reaching out. They’re isolating themselves and withdrawing, not just from a family which is normal, but from peers which are abnormal.
Dr. Drew: What does a parent do in a situation like that?
Meredith: That’s the really hard part because it’s all about the approach you take. So, some parents do it in a way that sounds accusing, and one thing that I encourage parents to do is really to take it from a point of concern and be very gentle with it. I like to leave things out to occupy them and try to – I feel like I’m luring them out to me like some kind of scared squirrel but I love leaving things around that my kids are naturally drawn to, that maybe I can get them to participate in so they’re willing to talk to me. And I’m talking like puzzles, I leave one on my office table, I’m building the Mario Cart one right now. Even teenagers will come and build that with me, I get more information out of them, doing that, cause they’re not sitting and looking at me and having this heart to heart where they feel like so much pressure, there’s not a lot of pressure there. They start opening up cause they’re moving their hands.
Now if you can’t get your kid out of the room to do something like that with you, or to lure them out in a way, then it’s okay to go up there and talk with them. I also think – One thing that I have teenagers do is investigate other family members, and by that, I say “I want you to interview and find out who has symptoms or feelings like this.”
So really taking stock of like, has anyone else experienced this? Am I alone? Am I not … But a lot of times I feel like depressed teens are connecting with other depressed teens and they’re feeding off of each other, and that makes me nervous too. But the parents it’s almost like bringing up the conversation, they know their kids best and I guess that is the one thing I want to get across to parents is that every parent has intuition, every parent is the expert on their child. They know better than the therapist or anybody else. They know, but we can also bring up, like teach them skills of validating. Parents like to always bring up and say “Well, you think your life’s hard, what about, you wanna hear about mine?” No, too much, all you’re gonna’ do is validate what they’re saying, or hear what they have to say about it, and all you’re gonna’ say is, “That’s rough,” or, “Oh my gosh, wow that sounds intense.” You’re not doing anything else.
If anything I would recommend to parents, to read the book Brainstorm by Dr. Dan Siegel. It goes over the teenage brain, how that works. The beautiful creativity and that capacity and that energy that can be harnessed with that, but also how to address it in a way that, whether it’s depression, anxiety, any of those issues, how to bring it up with them in a way that’s gonna’ be most impactful and meaningful to them, and not invade on their space.
And every kid is so different because I have one that is, my oldest is very introverted, if I question him too much, he becomes super overwhelmed, and doesn’t want to talk about it. So I have found that timing is very important, what’s the timing look like? Situations in which he and I happen to be alone, or activities that he enjoys, so that way I can talk with him. And change the way that I’m even addressing the topics with him because, if I ask him directly he shuts down. Whereas my middle will tell me everything that I’ve ever wanted to know and more, and he will just talk, and talk, and talk, and it’s easy for me because he and I are similar in that regard but my oldest is not, so I have to play it a little more careful with him.
I’m still learning though, every parent is still learning. It’s like each kid is a brand new parenting experience.
Dr. Drew: Well and I think that’s the key part, what you say in there Meredith, we’re always learning as parents, and so that actually can play into your favour, when talking with a kid, because earlier, you also said it’s all about how we approach it. So you said, it sounded like – you tell me your thoughts – instead it’s telling our teenager, “A” “I think you’re depressed,” instead maybe approaching it as going out and doing something, like you said, not sitting down, just having a face to face, heart to heart conversation but goin’ out and doin’ something and just saying “Man, it feels like something’s off.” Or “The energy seems different, I’m just curious if you’re feeling that way too or if it’s just me.” Right? Is that a decent approach to take to just kinda opening up from a curious standpoint?
Meredith: As a parent you go in and if parents can be aware of this one thing, and I learned this in a training that I’ve been taking ongoing with Lisa Dion it’s called Synergetic Play Therapy, and she talks a lot about the nervous system and that it’s all a projective experience, so when we go in a lot of times our kids, we are feeling the same emotions they are feeling, so if something feels off or if we feel ignored or rejected perhaps that’s how they’ve been feeling that day, maybe not with us but by a friend. So maybe you come in and you try to talk to them, they ignore you, or they mistreat you or get really snappy with you and you’re thinking ‘wow, nothing I do is good enough.’ That’s a key indicator right there if you can be aware enough, to recognize, wait … if I’m feeling this way there’s a good chance they felt this way too.
You don’t even have to know what they feel or what they experienced because they just told you. You don’t even have to ask them. They just told you. By how you’re feeling, if you can be in tune with that and recognize that there’s a projection goin’ on there. Like ‘Oh, they really reacted weirdly or there is something off and you name it right there you named your experience help them be able to connect that in their brain. “Something’s off for you Mom? Oh well ya’ know what? That’s been like that for me too.” Even if they don’t say it out loud their brain naturally goes and self-deflects.
Dr. Drew: I want to come back to what you were saying earlier. You mentioned they get around friends that feed off of each other. Tell me more about that specifically- of the teenage friend groups that seem to create a pool of depression together. Your thoughts on that and what can parents do?
Meredith: This seems to be a common issue. It’s almost like a competition about who is the most depressed or who has the most to be sad about or you don’t have it as hard as I do and it just feels like the focus, it’s just negative energy and if we’re talking about nervous systems here and we are projecting onto each other and picking things up, can you imagine what that energy is doing? It’s festering. I love the pool analogy, yeah you’re bathing in filth it’s disgusting there’s no such thing. But it’s this negative perspective because perspective is really what does determine how we are reacting to the situation, but when friends present it … we all have that friend who no matter what we might suggest or ideas we might have, it’s never a good one right? It feels hopeless.
That’s how they’re all feeling and so it just keeps escalating itself. First is someone looking up and saying “I can do something about this,” because most of them are stuck in this trap of who has it worse and nothing will ever help and it becomes part of their identity almost like they are wanting to belong to something and they belong here but they also don’t want to be belonging to the dysfunctional group or back in high school what they call Emos or Goth or whatever it was you know everyone at different generations had a group of kids that would do that but we’re just seeing that more and more now and I’m not sure … Yeah …
We want to feel significant like my favourite theorist ever is Alfred Adler and just because he talks about striving for significance and some people call it striving for superiority. But significant, mattering to somebody to something, belonging, that’s the social path that we want that are important to us and sometimes we seek ways that aren’t healthy and that’s when it becomes like a power trip or maybe we belong by being helpless or depressed because people come and help us or they are concerned about us and that’s our way of belonging right?
But with teens I am so much – and I would love to see more research and I know there is still so much going on but – social media I don’t know I’m even nervous to even say that, just cause I know the backlash and some teens get so mad but I think about my own experience on social media. There’s a big comparison game. You see people that are doing things that you’re not doing. You see people that look like they’ve got it together and only post the happiest stuff right? And you’re not. Or … you know the best selfies, the best this, the best that and even people or things that are not attainable or real and it becomes overwhelming. It’s so overwhelming and there’s so much data coming in at once it’s so flooding. How are you not overwhelmed? I’m just overwhelmed by watching the news too often, you know? Or reading it. Sensory information overload.
Dr. Drew: Yeah well between you and I we’ve got a good handful of kids. We’re in this mix right now. The reason why I bring that up is as a parent there’s a point whenever I have to say “Get off your electronics, we’re going to go for a family hike, we’re gonna’ go spend some time together,” and if they complain, I don’t give into it, right? Are we harming kids by doing that or are we helping our kids by doing that?
Meredith: Oh my gosh-totally helping. I can tell you in over the past year I’ve had several clients, this is interesting, the parents have actually decreased the amount of time that these kids had access to their phones and social media stuff and did more activities with them and I can’t believe, I even had one teen that said to me “I just feel so much happier when I don’t have my phone with me.” The pressure to be on, you know snap chat and [inaudible 00:18:08]I’m such an old lady I don’t even know the terms cause I’m actually not a fan but I know that there’s a pressure to be on once you’ve read something to respond people can see that it’s like you’re being watched every second to what you’re doing. And that’s a lot of pressure.
When I’m home I wanna be home and I think that parents are doing them, they’re taking that pressure away we already know what it’s like to be expected to do a lot of things at work and we know what that pressures like why do we want our kids to have that already? They don’t need that extra stress. And so when parents are disconnecting them the kids might be so mad but I have not had one kid say my life is over because my parents took that away. Or that they had me do an activity. In fact in therapy for depression, we call it behavioural observation right? Well we are, it is the hardest thing why not get started now? It’s hard as an adult to activate yourself when you’re depressed to move forward and do things to have a plan a schedule which we know are the things that help us the most. So as a parent we’re the child’s external regulators cause they’re still developing, their brains are not developed yet. So our job is to help them regulate and if that means structuring time and activities then we do it.
Dr. Drew: We have to have that balance of structuring time and activities does not mean that they have to be involved in 20 different activities and extracurriculars.
Meredith: No, No …and I’m not saying oh yes I’m going to the soccer game and then to baseball and then we’re gonna’ go back and go to dance class or you know, too many activities that are just as overwhelming and that competition so much overwhelming instead of just being. Is there a way to just be with somebody and talk with and visit. Just for the sake of being not having an agenda. I mean is that a possibility? I mean of course we wanna’ hike, that’s fun you know that doesn’t seem like too much pressure, but you know activities like that but being with them is important.
As important as peers are parents are still vital. It becomes more and more important than their families to them but they still need their parents. They absolutely do they need their guidance, they need parents to be involved and there’s just so much better outcome in all of their relationships if parents are actively involved.
Dr. Drew: Any words of advice for parents who are thinking when is it time to talk to a therapist or what changes can they make at home. What would be your quick overview of what they should do?
Meredith: So it never hurts obviously I’m an advocate for therapy so you know that’s something that I believe in so I feel like it can never hurt. But at the same time, I understand that sometimes there are constraints of that but it’s, there are plenty of books, plenty of resources out there that they can read into and check in about and I can send this to you if you want a list, its some of the most valuable ones …
The other thing for parents I think is knowing if they can keep that communication open that’s gonna’ be really important. Now let me gather my thoughts here for just a second to think how would I say if they hmm … hold on … I’m just thinking, how would you know if they needed to see a therapist versus something that you could do. I don’t think that it could hurt to go see a therapist, however, it could be helpful for parents to make a list of behaviours that they see as concerning and then on the other side what would they like to see instead what’s reasonable. We want reasonable behaviours that are age appropriate, right? So we wanna’ say I’d like to see them socializing more. Okay, that’s more, truth is I’d like them to be with our family 100 percent of the time. That’s not reasonable. So we want to have reasonable expectations.
We want something to be able to tell has progress been made. If we don’t have a clear expectation. We won’t be able to measure and everything seems like it’s either really great or really bad. That’s just how our brains tend to see it. So we need to have something that we are hoping to see and check in and make sure is this reasonable is this normal? For parents, I’m gonna’ say talk with other parents. Get your support system going so that way you can start developing what’s a sense of normalcy for kids this age? Get your support system in place, you’re gonna’ need that. And then from there, decide is this something that I can talk about with my teen what I’m hoping to see or what does the teen hope to see? What are they hoping will change? Like would they be better at getting their schoolwork done? Or have more motivation. And if after a little bit of time they still can’t it still seems like a huge struggle then time for therapy.
Meredith Hammond is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Registered Play Therapist in the Denver Metro Area. She specializes in the treatment of ADHD, trauma recovery, and family preservation therapy. As a play therapist, Meredith is an advocate for implementing play and creativity into daily routines and responsibilities to enhance motivation, productivity, and fulfilment. She is passionate about helping others (of all ages) explore and create new possibilities for connection, meaning, and FUN!
In her personal life, Meredith’s enjoys spending time with her husband, refereeing spontaneous wrestling matches between her three sons, building amazing Lego structures, and exploring the beautiful state of Colorado. Visit her website at www.meredithhammondlpc.com.