Middle School: New Challenges, New Solutions
Stress, not just test-taking stress, is a bigger concern in middle school than it was in elementary school. The hormones associated with puberty--for boys as well as girls--cause all kinds of changes, both physical and emotional, and those changes produce a lot of stress. How to act and how to fit in become huge issues. As a parent, you need to be willing and available to talk, even when it seems like your student has completely stopped communicating. Keeping all those feelings inside can lead to symptoms of depression.
The statistics on teen depression are scary. Even scarier is the number of cases that go undiagnosed and untreated. Between 3 and 5 percent of teens are clinically depressed, with twice as many girls as boys suffering from the disease. That's two million teenagers in the United States. Of those, only about a third get help. The rest struggle through it, and some don't make it. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among those aged fifteen to twenty-four (statistics courtesy of the National Institute of Mental Health).
My own daughter went through what I recognize now was depression when she was a young teen, and I'm sorry to say I missed most of the signals. Life happens so fast and furious that most of the time it is difficult to pay attention to the things that are happening around you. My marriage broke up, I moved my kids and myself halfway across the country, and we all began a new life. To say that I was busy doesn't even begin to cover it. I think that no matter how good a parent we are or we want to be, we still make mistakes. And one of my mistakes was with Corey, following our move to California.
The laughing little girl who was so athletic in elementary school--before we moved to California--suddenly became a couch potato when we hit Sacramento. She refused to try out for sports, even soccer and basketball, both of which she was very good at playing before the move. She didn't take an interest in much of anything. She attended school, but I had to push her to participate in extracurricular activities. And she had only two close friends. I knew deep in my heart that she was hurting, but I had too many other things to take care of. I didn't have time to nurse children whose father had abandoned all of our family dreams. I didn't have time to console children whose hearts were breaking for a father they loved, in spite of his negative choices. I didn't have time to have hope for reuniting our family with a mate who promised to get his act together. I didn't have time to think. I only had time to act.
Corey had always been a bit introverted and shy, but her new level of shyness was preventing her from doing much of anything. She turned more and more inward and was fast becoming a recluse. I couldn't understand what was happening to her. I figured she was just shy and not anxious to fit in. I didn't recognize that she was depressed and needless to say, I failed to get her treatment. She stayed down and out for a couple of years, but we were lucky. Once she started high school, she began coming out of her shell, and by the time she was in tenth grade, though she was still shy and introverted, she was no longer exhibiting signs of real depression. I feel very fortunate that she weathered those years without spiraling down into the negative behaviors many depressed teens adopt: an eating disorder, self-mutilation, or drugs.
As parents we are so bogged down with the basic responsibilities of keeping a roof over our kids' heads and food on the table, providing adequate physical health care, making sure they do well in school, and protecting them from harm, it's easy to forget about their mental health. We are so caught up in our own messes, we forget how those messes also affect our children. Kids feel stress and kids get depressed. Big life changes--and getting a divorce and moving across the country certainly qualify as big life changes--can trigger depression. When we separate from a partner, our kids experience the separation as well, and often in different ways. Our experiences are not limited to just us, they are far-reaching and residual.
If I had known then what I know today, I would have provided counseling or treatment for both Chris and Corey. I would have also gotten treatment for myself, to help me get through the feelings of failure, injustice, grief, guilt, and hatred I experienced. For a long time I was in denial, believing that my husband would wake up one bright morning and once again become the man I had married. And I wanted him to be that southern boy again, the one with the good manners and respect for women, the one I fell in love with. I was waiting for him to grow up and realize the gem of a family he had and the blessings God had given us. It never happened.
His betrayal hit me hard. I had promised myself I would have children only if I had someone to help me raise them. Now I was failing that promise. I was afraid of the hard times I knew were ahead, looking for a job, finding a decent community to raise my kids with good neighbors and safe schools, and being able to provide the same quality of life in California that my kids were accustomed to having in Missouri. I was afraid of failing my children, as it was now my single responsibility to insure they survive this life. I was alone and it was terrifying.
But as terrifying as it was for me, it must have been worse for Corey. Taken from the only home she had ever known and separated from her adored father, she had a dark road to travel before she could see that our life in Sacramento was a good life and that despite his actions toward his family, her father still loved her.
I am a very involved parent, and if I can miss the symptoms of depression, so can you. According to a Brown University study from 2002, even parents who enjoy a good relationship with their child, one where the lines of communication are open, don't recognize depression in their own kids, and in fact don't know what depression in teens looks like.
More on: Parental Involvement
From Say Yes To College: A Practical and Inspirational Guide to Raising College-Bound Kids by Sharon Chandler and Elizabeth Crane. Copyright © 2005. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
If you'd like to buy this book, click here or on the book cover.