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. “They can get pretty dependent on parents, and that’s not healthy either. Give yourself a lot of grace, and your kid too, to make mistakes. Each circumstance is going to be different. You’re going to make mistakes as a parent by either holding on too tight or not tight enough, and the kid is going to make mistakes too.”
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. “They may cope with depression by overeating or oversleeping or not eating enough or not sleeping enough,” he 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.