I got this note on Facebook Messenger:
Hey GM, I was wondering if you had any advice for me. I have a 15-year-old son who, up until recently, attended church with his father (my ex). This was one of the many things that he stopped engaging in when he began to feel depressed. He has stopped doing his schoolwork altogether, has trouble getting out of bed, wears the same clothes every day without showering. He won’t do his chores. About the only thing he still does is his part-time job. He tells me he can’t do any of this stuff. He says he wants to, but he can’t and accuses me of not understanding what depression feels like. I have not had him diagnosed yet as my ex does not believe medicine is the answer – he thinks we should be dragging him back to his Catholic Church. He’s convinced all this depression stuff began when my son stopped attending church. I have no idea how to help my son and get his father to lay off with the religious B.S. I Have full custody, his father only sees him every second weekend, which makes it a bit easier. Any advice you can provide would be appreciated.
It’s really eerie how some of your questions reflect what’s going on in my own life. I too have struggled with a depressed teen lately. I can tell you one thing for sure: It’s not easy in any way, shape or form. It can be totally defeating at times, and it just takes every last ounce of energy out of you. But I can promise you this: facing it head-on is absolutely worth it because depression can be really debilitating.
I can give you some ideas on how to deal with it, but what you really need is to see that doctor. The sooner your son is getting medical help for his mental health issues, the better. Since you have sole custody, I say just do it. Get to that doctor.
Outside of that, here are some of the things I would do in your shoes:
1. Get a diagnosis – it sounds as though your son has diagnosed himself and though teenagers do know everything (right?), they can be wrong. You need to find out what’s actually causing this behaviour. It’s not unheard of for a teen to read about depression on the internet and decide that’s what they have, thereby causing the behaviour in question to fulfil their own diagnosis. Clinical depression is real and very treatable, but you need to know that’s actually what you’re dealing with before planning your attack on it. Be sure to follow the advice of your doctor once you get that diagnosis.
2. Find a therapist – Once you have a depression diagnosis, get your son to a therapist of some kind. Cognitive behavioural therapy can work really well by training your son on how to cope with depression in his day-to-day life. He’ll learn skills to push through the negative feelings and thoughts and get himself moving despite not feeling like it. Other forms of therapy will dig deep and tackle any underlying issues in his life that may be dragging him down.
3. Talk to your son – Often, parents of depressed teens feel they can never say the right thing around their son or daughter and so they clam up. The thing is, not everything you say to him has to be the cure-all for depression. Just talk to him like normal, don’t let yourself drift from him because he needs you now more than ever. If that means you yammer on about mundane things with him, then that’s what it means. If he groans and moans about it, just deal. Human connection fights depression but depressed people rarely seek it out. That’s something you can give him. One of the ways I find works to get the teen talking is to ask them for their advice on something. “Should I wear this?”, “What music should I add to my driving playlist?”, “My coworker talks a lot and it’s distracting, what would you do?”. These tend to be things your teen is going to have an opinion on and will get them talking to you. Even if you’re just talking about an Apple Music playlist, it counts as human connection and it’ll work to give him a boost of happy chemicals in his brain. Depression is isolating and left up to him, he would retreat into a dark abyss and that’s nowhere you want your baby boy to be.
4. Get to the bottom of why he’s not going to church with his dad – it’s not always easy to get any teen to open up about why they are or are not doing something. Go slow and start with your own experiences. I am going to assume you’re a godless heathen like myself, so tell your son what led to you becoming an atheist. Ask him if he believes in god. Ask him if he misses church and if he valued it. If he doesn’t open up right away, keep talking to him about your own feelings toward it and keep asking. The Catholic church is pretty heavy on shame and guilt and it could very well be a factor in your son’s depression, so tell him that all those things they want him to feel shame and guilt for are normal things we all experience. If you find out he doesn’t believe in god or was coming home miserable from church or even that he just adamantly does not want to go anymore, then work with him on telling his father that. You could, of course, tell dad that on your own, but he’s much more likely to truly hear it if it comes from your son. If it turns out the church is important to him, and he’s just struggling to get up and at ’em on church day, don’t take it from him. Help him get up and get to church with his dad.5. Teach your son to cope – It’s important that your son understand that while depression can make a lot of things more difficult to do, it is not an excuse to not do them. Explain to him that many people all over the world lead normal, productive lives with depression and all it takes is a few coping skills. Have weekly meetings, either just you and your son or you and your son and his father if he’s willing, where you talk about the coping methods you’ve researched, set some goals for the next week and see how you did on last week’s goals. It helps if you also set goals for yourself – that way it’s not just about your son. Plus, he will feel empowered by encouraging you to complete your goals and holding you accountable when you don’t. Goals for him could be showering every day or every second day for an entire week, getting some good exercise in every day, eating well, etc. These are all things that fight depression. They are hard to do, but as you discuss methods of self-motivation and self-discipline, they should get easier. The Subreddit /r/getdisciplined is a great resource for this purpose.
6. Don’t stop inviting him places and asking him to do things with you – it’s easy to get discouraged from asking him to go places and do things with you because 9 times out of 10 he’s going to say no. Don’t give up – giving up on this will allow him to think you don’t care as much. Depressed brains go to dark places to explain what’s going on around them, so don’t give his brain an excuse to do that. Keep asking even if he always says no.
7. Listen – this is the most important thing. It can be really frustrating at times because he’ll say things that are wrong and that you’ve learned from your own experience are not correct and you’ll want to correct him. It’ll just get his back up, though, because teenagers know everything, remember? Don’t argue with him about what he says. Just listen. Hear him. If he says something that is entirely incorrect, don’t correct him. Instead, ask him questions that might lead to him figuring it out on his own. You can also share resources with him that counter his points – YouTube videos from people who’ve been down this road and come out happy on the other side can be a really great learning tool for him. Of course, he’s not going to seek those out on his own. So, let him talk while you’re listening and maybe the next day or a couple of days later, send him the link to a video that shows how his thinking could be better. Just say, “I thought this video was interesting. What do you think?”. Don’t tell him he’s wrong – anyone in the deep throes of depression is going to feel attacked when you tell them they are wrong about their own experiences. This can shut down communication and you want to keep it open. Listen to your son. Don’t argue with him. Just hear him. Repeat what he has said to you back to him in your own words. Sometimes, just having someone truly hear you is all you need to turn your world around.
If during all of this you notice any signs of suicidal thoughts, you must take action. Even if that action results in your son being angry with you. An angry son is better than a son who is no longer with us. For a list of the signs of suicide and resources for getting help, click here.
I don’t envy you, especially dealing with this as a single parent. You do not have an easy road ahead of you, but rest assured the road exists. You do have ways to help your son as best you can. You sound like a caring mother and that gives your son a head start. I hope that everything turns out well for you and your family.
What advice would you give this mother? Let me know in the comments!
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