Depression in adolescents
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So Your Teen Has Been Diagnosed with a Mood Disorder, Now What?

By Judy Shepps Battle

Every parent dreams of having a "perfect" child. One who is smart, attractive, talented, obedient, polite, and healthy in mind and body. Many spend money on preschool and private education to create academic advantage and increase the odds of acceptance into a prestigious college.

It comes as a shock when our youngster has difficulty navigating this traditional path. An elementary school report card may contain "C"s and learning disabilities discovered. Or he or she may simply dislike academic courses.

A healthy parent learns to love and accept their child as he or she is and relinquishes personal and social expectations. Family resources - emotional and financial - are allocated to maximize strengths and remove obstacles to the full development of a youngster's potential.

At no time is this parental resolve more tested than when their teen is diagnosed with a mood disorder.

Adolescent Angst

Under normal circumstances, hormonal and social changes may turn the most compliant and even-tempered pre-adolescent into a defiant, moody, chronically irritated, angry, scared teen. One hour he may be sobbing that no one loves him and the next be excitedly talking on the phone about a date. One minute she may want a hug and the next scream not to be touched.

For a small percentage of teens these normal moods become extremely intense, debilitating and require professional care. They become suicidal when depressed and out-of-control when manic. Eventually, a diagnosis of "mood disorder" - major depression or bipolar disorder - may be made and a combination of medicine and therapy prescribed. Gradually, their whirlwind of emotional changes begins to subside.

It is not as easy for parents of newly diagnosed mood-disordered teens to find inner peace.

You Are Not Alone

Haunting questions of "why did this happen," "what could I have done to prevent it," and "how can I help my mood-disordered teen" often generate parental feelings of shame, guilt, and inadequacy. If you are in such a situation, know first that you are not alone. Statistics indicate that 7 to 14 percent of children will experience an episode of major depression before the age of fifteen. Out of 100,000 adolescents, two to three thousand will have severe mood disorders.

Know also that science is far from clear about the relative effect of environment, genes, and brain chemistry on producing severe adolescent mood disorders. While it is true that both depression and bipolar disease tend to run in families, it is not certain why some genetically-prone individuals remain mentally healthy and others do not. Simply said, you did not cause your child's mental disorder. Neither can you cure it. But you can help your teen cope with his or her disease. And you can keep your own physical and mental health in the process.

Making a Distinction

All the love in the world cannot instantly cure chronic depression or bipolar disease. Our power as parents is to help our kids develop coping mechanisms for effectively dealing with their life circumstances. This means we must not confuse our child with his or her mood disorder. A depressed or bipolar teen is first and foremost a teen. All the hormonal and social factors facing a non-mentally ill adolescent are still present as is the need to separate from parents. We deal with the adolescent part of our children by offering love, enforcing rules and boundaries, allowing them to experience the natural consequences of (non life-threatening) behavior, and being available to listen in a nonjudgmental fashion. The "disease" part of our teen may require more direct intervention.

Coping With the Disease

Mood-disordered teens do not have the same luxury of experimenting with alcohol and other drugs as their non-diagnosed peers. Legal stimulants such as caffeine and illegal substances such as cocaine may trigger a manic episode for a bipolar youth. Alcohol, which is a depressant, can trigger a depressive episode for any mood-disordered individual. If your child cannot maintain abstinence from these substances it is important to get professional help.

Medicine compliance cannot be left to chance. Many teens lead hectic lives and have difficulty honoring schedules. Although there may be grumbling, it is important that you ensure that prescribed dosages be consistently taken.

Getting a proper amount of sleep is critical to maintain emotional balance. This is difficult for many teens who live on the telephone or computer both day and night. You may need to strictly enforce a bedtime and, if necessary, remove any distractions from the bedroom.

It is important for an individual with mood swings to develop a means to find an emotional center. You can help your child in this process by encouraging relaxation exercises such as yoga or meditation.

Finally, you can "Feng Shui" your home to reduce stress and promote serenity. By decluttering, increasing natural light, having sources of running water, and using certain colors, the general environment can become peaceful for all family members.

Finding Support

Riding the mood swings of a not-yet-diagnosed bipolar teen, or being terrified that your depressed child will commit suicide, takes an intense physical and emotional toll on a parent. As your child begins to get well emotionally, you must take time out for your own recovery. Make sure you get enough sleep, eat healthy foods, exercise, and find a balance between interacting with friends and being alone. Do at least one "special thing" for yourself daily, even if it is taking a bath or playing a round of miniature golf.

Find time to join a support group composed of parents with emotionally disturbed teens. Whether it is facilitated by a therapist or based on a self-help model, it is important to share and listen to the experience, strength and hope of others in your situation. This network can be invaluable during the inevitable bumps in the normal parent-child road and when your child's mood disorder flares up.

Being the parent of a depressed or bipolar teen is a challenge but there is help available.

Copyright 2002 Judy Shepps Battle

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