We’re here on earth to be tried and tested. It’s one of the most quoted lines used to explain the purpose of mortal life and how it fits into God’s eternal plan of happiness.
But tests are often not easy. And trials traditionally are not wanted. Watching your children go through either can be difficult, especially if he or she is dealing with a disorder like anxiety or depression.
So how do you effectively parent a child dealing with one or both of these disorders? How do know whether this is just a phase or professional help is needed? How can faith in Jesus Christ help both you and your child to endure this test well?
Sister Carol F. McConkie, the First Counselor in the Young Women General Presidency, a mother of seven, and a former “mission mom” to hundreds in the San Jose California Mission, and Heather Nelson, a mother of three and licensed clinical social worker with over 17 years of experience helping children, shared their thoughts in this episode of Gospel Solutions for Families.
Amy: Anxiety is a normal part of childhood, and we all feel depressed sometimes. As a parent, how do you know when it’s more than just your child being nervous or sad?
Heather: The times when it would require counseling or some other kind of intervention is when it’s getting in the way of their normal, typical activities. If they suddenly don’t want to play with their friends anymore, they just want to stay in their room, they don’t want to be with people, they’ve had a change in friends, they’ve been doing well in school and then suddenly their grades drop—those are all warning signs. When it’s consistent and across the board that they’re not functioning like they used to, you should consider seeking professional help.
Amy: How should parents react when they notice a child exhibiting these kinds of symptoms?
Sister McConkie: It’s important that we respond in a way that allows the child to feel comfortable and secure in their relationship with their mother or father. We need to make them feel good about themselves. If we overreact it becomes even more traumatizing to our children. They need to know that their relationship with their mother or father is something they can trust and rely on, no matter what is going on in their lives. Overreaction puts up a barrier, and we don’t want to do that. If we’re going to help our children deal with these feelings that are so negative and destructive, our responses need to be calm and patient and not filled with anxiety ourselves or cause us to get into a state of depression. The minute we overreact the child will think, “Oh my goodness, there is something really wrong with me or I’ve traumatized my mother or father. I don’t want to do that anymore.” It’s important that our children know that in the home there is absolute love, that that love is there for them no matter what. They need to know their parents appreciate them for who they are, that they are needed, that they are enough, and that they don’t have to compare themselves to others. By virtue of who they are as a child of God, they are enough.
Amy: How do we talk about these emotional issues with our kids?
Heather: I think the first step is to help our kids have the words to express and talk about what’s going on with their feelings. So, when you’re reading with your children, point out pictures and ask, “How do you think they’re feeling?” “What do you think is going on with them?” The earlier we can help to encourage talking about feelings and especially their feelings, the more open the communication will be later. With older kids, parents can be proactive in saying things like, “I’ve noticed you’ve been feeling really sad. Can you tell me what’s going on?” Talking about feelings is good. Talking about our feelings with our children is great. I think if we’re modeling that behavior, the kids will understand that it’s okay to be honest about your feelings and to talk to someone about it.
Amy: Why is it so important to turn to our Savior in these times of trial and teaching our children to do the same?
Sister McConkie: I love the description that Isaiah gives of the Savior that He was “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” We know that that description is accurate because He did take upon Himself all of these things as part of His infinite Atonement. It’s so important that our children know that they have a Heavenly Father, that they understand their divine identity, that they know that they have a Savior. Their understanding of the reality of these heavenly beings and heavenly relationships is part of who they are. That’s such an empowering thing to understand who they are. They are a son or daughter of God. They have a Savior. They can witness miracles, and we can have blessings in our life.
In preparation for this interview, I looked up how many times the word anxiety or depressed appeared in the scriptures. I quickly saw how frequently this was a challenge for great people who are men of God. Prophets. Apostles. I read in Joseph Smith—History of how he described what was going on in his day and how his “mind at times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult were so great incessant,” and he describes it as “all my anxieties.”
He had never attempted to pray, and he uses the word anxiety to describe this extreme experience that he was going through prior to seeing God the Father and His Son. I think Joseph’s choice of words can help our young people to realize that they’re not alone. They’re not the only ones who have experienced this. People who have gone before with these same experiences of anxiety and depression have been able to overcome with the help of God and become great people.
Amy: As parents, are there things we can do to help our children deal with these tough issues?
Heather: Having empathy is huge, and validating their concerns. Talk about possibilities versus probabilities. That can help them calm their worries. But I also think that helping kids to confront any fears they might have is a skill they’ll need their whole lives.
I think our tendency when our kids are suffering is to go easy on them and give them whatever we think they need, but what they really need is consistency so they can feel safe. Rules are a form of love. And in the world where there’s chaos and everything feels out of control for a little kid, setting those expectations and ensuring that they can consistently rely on you for rules and consequences is important. Even if they consistently push your limit, they know it’s going to be there. It’s consistent and it helps them feel secure. But it should always be done with a spirit of love.
Amy: How do we ourselves navigate this trial of parenting a child with anxiety or depression?
Heather: As mothers one of our big go-to’s when it comes to shame is “I’m not a good mom.” And we need to back off that a little bit. We all have emotions. We’re all going to feel things. We all have agency. But how do we respond? Understand that your children are going to learn from these experiences. We don’t have to “own it” ourselves or think, “I’m a bad parent because they’re depressed” or “I’m a bad parent because they’re anxious.” Back off of that and say, “Okay, so what are we going to do with that?” And your response is usually related to how resilient you are. Fill your bucket with spiritual things, with healthy things, and you’ll be better equipped to deal with whatever tests and trials come your way.
Sister McConkie: The fundamental, basic behaviors that invite peace into the heart and into the home are prayer and spending some time in the words of the prophets and the words of the Lord in the scriptures. Spend some time reflecting upon those things, and then look for ways to have fun with your family. Enjoy life. That kind of balance of spiritual, mental, and emotional health through all the busyness of life creates a level of peace and calm and a foundation that everyone can stand on, even in the challenging moments.
Heather: Our children are children of God, and so are we. Having that eternal perspective gives us hope for the future. It helps us to have more patience, more love, more understanding. I think having an eternal perspective helps us to parent differently. When our children have a bunch of negative thoughts going on, the thing that will battle it the best is the knowledge that we are children of God, that He will help us, and that because of our Savior, we have hope for our present and future. This is just a small minute in our existence.