By Lisa Hartwig
Lisa is the mother of 3 gifted children and lives outside of San Francisco.
Four years ago, I sat in the library of my children’s school and said a small prayer.
“Please don’t let that happen to us,” I thought.
I was listening to a psychiatrist talk about anxiety. He said that during adolescence a child’s hormones can amplify stress and anxiety, causing depression. As predicted, the hormones came, my son’s anxiety got worse and he became depressed.
Maybe I should have been more proactive and made choices for my son that would have reduced his stress and anxiety. Instead, we let him make choices that satisfied some of his personal ambitions but exacerbated his anxiety. We let him leave his support system and travel across the country to go to boarding school. The move fulfilled his desire to explore new interests, have new experiences and challenge himself. It also made his undiagnosed depression worse.
As a parent, what do you do when you think trouble is coming? Do you make decisions for your child, knowing that you have the experience to anticipate the consequences? Or do you let your child make decisions that will help him to discover who he is, even though it might come at a substantial price? The child who elicited my silent prayer has a big personality. As a child, he was loud, independent and adventurous. Unlike our oldest son, who did not want to leave our arms, our middle child cried until we put him down. A lover of novelty and adventure, he wrote a high school admissions essay about a holiday celebrating rollercoasters. The day would “remind people to enjoy the journey.” You would never know that he is also highly sensitive.
Anxiety, sensitivity, independence and an adventurous spirit; all of these characteristics seemed to be baked into our son at birth. They also fight against one another, as adventure creates anxiety and sensitivity requires support. The qualities that led my son to his depressed state are not going to go away. So, what can I do to ease his journey? I asked him.
He didn’t know how to respond until he found himself on the other end of the conversation. A friend came to him to confess that he was depressed. As my son thought about what to do, he went quickly through a list of don’ts. Don’t say that you understand what the other person is going through because you don’t. Don’t say that things will get better because when you are hurting, you believe that it will never get better. Instead, my son said something that I think about every day. He told his friend:
“If you never get better, if you are always sad, nothing will change between us. I care for you as much today in your sadness as I did when you were happy. You don’t have to change. We will always be good.”
His expression of unconditional love and acceptance stunned me. I thought he would share strategies that worked or connections that sustained him. Instead, my son accepted his friend as he found him. He not only refused to offer advice but also absolved his friend of the responsibility to “get better” for his sake.
I am not suggesting that parents just sit back and watch their child get depressed. My son needed a professional to help him find a way out of the dark. But, I also learned that every well-meaning comment intended to help him imposed a burden of its own. He told me as much a year ago when I held him in my arms as he cried. Desperate to find something to make him feel better, I reminded him that he was home and I was with him.
“Does that make you feel a little bit better?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I know that I am making you sad, and that makes me feel worse.”
Our children know what we want for them. We want them to be happy. Yet, we know their gifts may come with anxiety, emotional intensity, perfectionism or social isolation, all of which make reaching this goal difficult. We think we know how to help them cope with a potentially cruel world; if they would just modify their behavior in one way or another, we are sure that things will be better. In the process, we are sometimes communicating to them our dissatisfaction with who they are. Maybe we could just put aside our goals for them and help them understand themselves and be themselves. Maybe every challenge doesn’t need a strategy, a pep talk or a class. Maybe they need to know that we don’t need them to change. Maybe the most important thing for them to know is that together, we will always be good.