Just because your kid is depressed doesn’t mean you can stop parenting them

So besides being the mother of a teen who is depressed, I am an occupational therapist who works with children on a daily basis. These children all have disabilities that affect their ability to learn and to function independently in school, home, and community. The one thing I’ve always, consistently said to the parents of these kids is that they have to parent their kids regardless of their disabilities. That just because a child has a disability, doesn’t mean they can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t have to do something that might be challenging for them. They just might need things presented in a different way or they may need your style to be different from that of your other children, but regardless, they need parenting. Parenting that involves boundaries, limits, expectations, discipline, and saying no. And yes it may be harder to parent these children but they are the ones that often need it the most. The one thing we don’t want is for their disability to prevent them from doing the things they need to do to get along in this world. The disability is hard enough without compounding it with behavioral problems due to a lack of parenting. And I talk about this when I teach my sensory integration course, during every parent meeting, and whenever I’m consulting on cases in school.

The problem is that I seem to have forgotten that when it came to raising my own child with an emotional disability. I let her use her anxiety and depression to get out of going to school, being responsible for her actions, doing chores in the house, treating us and her sister with respect, and loads of other things. I was so worried she would hurt herself or become more depressed that I fed into it instead and became the parent I always talked about not being. You know, the one who excuses all the behaviors and keeps their kids from failing and falling and hurting. The one who always picks them back up without giving them the chance to pick themselves up on their own. I said yes to everything she asked of me or from me. Concert tickets that cost 150 dollars? Sure thing babycakes. New clothes that she doesn’t really need? You got it honey pie. Staying home from school because she was sad and anxious and stressed? Ok, why not? Failed a test? Let me email your teachers to see if you can retake it. Didn’t get your homework done? I’ll get you more time. And on and on it went until one day I woke up (with the help of my really awesome therapist) and found out that I was doing the very thing I warned others against. I was not parenting my child with a disability when what she really needed was some good old fashioned parenting.

You see, I’m perfectly capable of parenting my older teen. When she asks me for something unreasonable or blames a bad grade on a teacher or acts like a demon child I call on her shit. Every single time I challenge her to be the best person she can be without me paving the way or helicoptering her life. And she’s a pretty damn good human. But I am failing with my other daughter and she is really the one that needs it the most. And let me tell you, it’s really hard. It’s so much harder to undo the damage I’ve done than if I would have just continued parenting her the way I knew she needed. And it’s funny, as I’ve started doing it, she is part shocked, part pissed, but I believe part relieved that I’m not letting her out of things or picking her back up constantly but instead challenging her to find her own resiliency and bounce back. The way I explained it to my husband was like this. I have a heart condition that could limit the activities that I do and could give me an excuse to sit on my ass and do nothing but drink red wine every day (ok fine, I do one of those thing but red wine is good for the heart, shut up) but I don’t. I don’t let the heart condition define me; it is not who I am but rather something that I have to pay attention to and deal with, but I don’t have to let it hold me back or pull me down. And it’s the same with her depression. We can keep using it as an excuse for her attendance and her behavior or we can challenge her to get better and to truly live in spite of it. And for the love of all that is good it is so hard.

Last night she started with feeling sad and wanting to sleep with me. In the morning it turned into hysterics and that she couldn’t go to school. The old me would have let her take a mental health day or taken her to the crisis center or the hospital. The new me sat with her and told her that she had to go to school but that she had a choice on what she would do once she was there. She could go to the “home base” room for kids who need emotional support, she could meet with the school psychologist or the counselor, or she could go to classes or some mixture of all of these. My husband and I could feel that she was trying to get us to let her stay home but we held our ground as hard as it was that she had to go to school. I went so far to say that if she didn’t go, I would have to call the home to school interventionist and the compliance officer to get her to school. Eventually, more specifically two hours later, she got to school. She was able to go to a few classes and spent some time with the school psychologist but she got through the day. She did it. I told her when she got home that I was so proud of her for going and staying. And when she said she only went to a few classes I said well that’s a few more than you thought you’d go to so I call that success. And while the whole ordeal was so painful (especially since I was already home sick with a stomach bug), it was so good in the outcome. It sets the precedence for her taking responsibility for her actions. It shows her that she can do it even when it’s really, really freaking hard. She learned that she’s not going to feel good everyday but that she can live her life everyday the best way she possibly can. And this is the most important part of it all.

Today was hard but today was a success. Practicing what we preach is sometimes so difficult but so necessary. To all the parents out there raising children with physical, emotional, and social disabilities, we can do this, we have to do this, we owe this to our kids. We just need to find the strength to do it on a regular basis.

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