'What I wish I'd known before my daughter became depressed'

sad face emoji
sad face emoji

Parenting a depressed or anxious child can be frightening, frustrating, traumatic and exhausting.  Understanding that their behaviours are neither your fault nor your child’s can really help, especially given the latest stats. Child referrals for serious mental health problems in England rose by 39 per cent last year - and in parts of the country, the waiting period for the first assessment is over a year.

Ian Williamson, child and adolescent psychologist and author of parenting guide We Need to Talk, says the reasons for this rise are complex. “Lockdowns saw children losing 18 months of social development,” he says. “Social media now brings all sorts of pressures.”

On top of this, Williamson believes we have higher expectations of our mental health - we expect to be happy all the time - which has made some young people struggle with more difficult emotions. Whatever lies behind the surge, one thing is certain. The NHS won’t rush to the rescue.

“Realistically, at the moment, unless your child is at death’s door, you might get seen once - or at the most, get a few sessions of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy),” he says.

Most parents who have a child struggling with depression or anxiety are managing it themselves. Here’s advice from parents who have found their way through..

I Wish I’d Known…

The warning signs

Suzanne Alderson was catapulted into crisis when her 14-year-old daughter Issy disclosed to a GP that she was planning to take her own life. Looking back, Alderson can see what she now calls “a slow burn of despair” over an 18-month period.

“Changes in sleeping patterns, eating habits, a withdrawal from all the things that used to bring her joy,” says Alderson. “We had a summer where she didn’t see her friends at all. There was a reactivity. You could ask a simple question and get a very over-the-top response. She’d lost her sparkle - the things that made her Issy.”

Suzanne Alderson - Andrew Fox
Suzanne Alderson - Andrew Fox

It’s hard to know when “challenging” behaviour is “typical teenage hormones” or a cause for alarm. Williamson advises looking at the level of withdrawal. “If your child was once buzzing to get to football and now wants to drop out, is taking meals in their bedroom, spending excessive amounts of time away from the family and friends, you need to find out what’s going on - and maybe be a bit of a detective.”

To watch their online life

“We treated our daughter’s screen time as a private space,” says Rachel, who discovered her 15-year-old daughter was struggling with anxiety and self-harming during lockdown.

“When we found that she was self-harming, we did start looking closely at her social media and checking her search history. She was spending so much time on self-harm chat rooms, where a few people seemed to be egging others on in a weird, underhand kind of way. It was horrifying.”

A strong advocate of monitoring children’s digital lives, Williamson advises parents to access all accounts - Getty
A strong advocate of monitoring children’s digital lives, Williamson advises parents to access all accounts - Getty

A strong advocate of monitoring children’s digital lives, Williamson advises parents to access all accounts and does so himself. “We’d never let our 14 year old go out for a night and not tell us what they were doing,” he says.

“The notion that they should have secure accounts that parents can’t access is delusional. You have to understand the complexity and danger. You’re paying, you should have the password and you should check up on what’s going on. Tell your child it’s not that you want to see what they are doing and what they’re putting out - you want to see what’s coming in.”

Their behaviour isn’t a choice

“As parents, we blame ourselves and ask, ‘Why can’t I stop this?,’ It’s incredibly emotive,” says Alderson. “Recognising that Issy’s behaviours were not a conscious choice on her part, and they weren’t something she or I could control, de-personalised it for me. Jumping at any loud noise, being completely unable to concentrate or listen, or sleeping all day were the physiological impacts of anxiety on her nervous system.

“It was the ‘fight or flight response’, the freeze state, the exhaustion when her body is expending all its power in a state of hyperarousal. It was her body’s response to fear or lack of safety, perceived or real. That helped me stop focusing on the behaviours because I realised that physically, Issy couldn’t change them. We had to look at what was behind it.”

There’s no quick fix

“There are good days and bad days and a lot of in-between days,” says Liz, whose 17-year-old son first showed signs of depression when he was 13. “Initially, I thought that when we finally saw CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services), they’d have the answers. For some people, they do but my son didn’t really engage with them.”

What helped? “Finding any way to build a deeper connection,” she says. “Sending each other dog videos on Instagram. Doing anything enjoyable together - for us, walking the dog, watching American Vandal, kicking a ball with him outside, making his favourite foods and eating them together. Listening whenever he’d talk - and sending him online resources which he did engage with a bit more. Slowly, the good days began to outnumber the bad. He’s now in college doing really well.”

There’s a multitude of digital resources designed to help young people. ORCHA, the digital health app library is a good starting point. Wysa is an award-winning app, essentially a chat bot which offers cognitive behavioural tools and signposting for the young people who feel safer talking to a robot.

Silvercloud’s Children and Young People (CYP) has a suite of different programmes for both children and teens managing anxiety and low mood. Calm Harm is an app which helps young people manage the urge to self harm, and the app Clear Fear aims to help with anxiety - both come recommended.

Self care is essential for taking care of my child

“Running yourself ragged, blaming yourself, focusing entirely on your child won’t help them,” says Alderson.

“You need to be their blueprint - or their compass. At first, the emotion was so deep, so heavy, that I coped by walking in the fields far away from our home and screaming, and by drinking wine. It’s so common to see parents complaining that they can’t get their child to engage with therapy but if you ask if they are getting professional support themselves, they say, ‘I don’t need to.’”

Alderson has been through therapy now and also founded the Facebook support group Parenting Mental Health. “The way I looked after myself was an example for Issy.”

However painful, this will pass and we'd be different but closer

Alderson’s daughter is now a 21-year-old graduate, who is thriving. Alderson has mapped their journey in her book, Never Let Go, although everyone’s path will be different. “You may need to abandon the plan you had in your head for your child,” she says, whose daughter left her selective private school where she had been bullied, “but by listening and supporting and advocating, you can build a deeper connection. It’s a painful, difficult, traumatic opportunity.”

Mental health nurse consultant Emma Taylor is also a clinical lead at Wysa, she says young people can and do emerge stronger and more resilient. “Parents often look for an ‘end point’ where their child will go back to who they were before,” she says, “but their child will have learned so much, they’ll have new skills, they won’t be the same. And mental health will be something they’ll continue to work on, as it is for everyone.”

What advice would you give to parents whose children are struggling with their mental health? Join the conversation in the comments section below