Help Your Child in the Darkest Moments

He was 21 years old and a two-day drive from me when he called sobbing into the phone. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember he was in crisis and he didn’t know why. My son was a college student with fine grades and no other real drama in life, except he felt devastated. I sat on the other end of the line listening, telling him it was going to be okay, talking him off the ledge and feeling completely terrified. What could I, being so far away, do to help?  That dark fear which is the most awful for parents was rolling around in my head, “could he possibly kill himself?”

This is a real concern for many parents. The Center for Disease Control reports suicide has increased 30 percent since 1999, and it’s higher for kids. Dr. Gregory Plemmons of Vanderbilt University told NBC News that children who were hospitalized for suicidal thoughts or activity doubled between 2008 and 2015.

What in the world is going on? No one really knows. We know social media contributes to depression and we know if kids stay off their phones for two weeks they report increased happiness. We know mental illnesses like depression and bipolar disease contribute to suicidal activity. We know from Dr. Laurel Williams, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Texas Children’s Hospital, that over 90 percent of kids who commit suicide had a diagnosable mental health disorder.

It’s a complicated and complex problem that cannot be solved in a paragraph. But, based on a lot of research, thought, and experience here are few things that we can do.

Know what depression looks like in children. Get some help when you need it.

  • If they begin to isolate and feel like they are becoming a burden
  • If they are experiencing an increased level of anxiety
  • If they say they feel trapped or are in unbearable emotional or physical pain
  • If they begin or increase substance abuse
  • If they have increased anger or severe mood swings
  • If they sleep too much or too little
  • If they are expressing feelings of hopelessness or wanting to die
  • If they are looking for a way to access lethal means or making a suicide plan.
  • Pay attention to their problems. Stress at school, financial, and relational. 

If you see any of these things and especially if you see a combination of these, you can:

  • Ask about what you are seeing in a non-judgmental way.

An accepting, compassionate attitude is key to connecting to your child. You may not understand what is going on, and they probably won’t either. The confusion can create anxiety in your child so keep your mind and heart open to what they are experiencing. Explore it together. Do not be afraid to ask. They may be secretly wanting you to ask.

  • Keep them safe.

Remove any type of lethal substances or weapons. Make sure they are surrounded by people who love them and are keeping watch.

  • Be there.

For teenagers, we know the time they want to talk begins about 10pm. Be aware of their rhythms and be ready to listen when they are ready to talk.

  • Help them connect to you and others.

Build a support network for you both. This is especially important if you live far away from home and don’t have a support network of extended family. 

  • Follow up with them frequently.

Never think that everything is okay now. Monitor the situation.Sometimes when things begin to calm down, it’s because they have at last made a decision to end it. 

  • Know when you are in over your head.

Get help when you need it.  It’s better to go for help before things get really bad. Do not hesitate. There are mental health clinics that charge little or by a sliding scale according to income. Find a clinic and begin the conversation. If that clinic can’t give you what you need, ask for a referral.

When my son called sobbing, I knew, deep in my soul, that I was in over my head. We found out through his roommates he had been isolated in his room for two weeks, barely coming out. His dad got on a plane, flew half way across the country and got him to a doctor. There he got help and began his own personal fight. Over time, with a lot of effort, he won the battle and continues to win every day. Now, he has a fantastic job, a beautiful wife, his own place, and a dog with a waggy tail.

A friend of mine shared this personal letter he wrote with me and it is one of the most practical and helpful things I’ve read on depression. Keep in mind, he is not a doctor or any other medical professional and make sure you talk to your own doctor about all of this. The author of this letter is simply a fellow struggler. He gave me permission to share this with you but asked to remain anonymous. If you, or one of your kids or friends struggle with depression, I hope you will find encouragement here.  


            I don’t know anything specific about your life, but I bet I understand nearly exactly how you feel. I’ve studied a lot, and my psychiatrist was formerly a highly respected researcher at an elite medical school. Of course, there was a lot of personal trial and error. Sometimes I feel a deep sadness about what I went through. Depression will always be a part of who we are. It’s in our blood. Accept it. So are you going to take that lying down? BUT if you fight depression the right way, you will beat it. You just need a good strategy.

            These steps worked for me. They will work for you, but it will be a road of several months. Be persevere and be strong. Be relentless. The bad times will seem to disappear, but then come back. Don’t lose hope. My bad times last only two-to-three days because I follow these steps.

            Sleep. Your sleep habits have to be on point. Depressed folks do not have the luxury of bad sleep habits. Seven-ish hours seems to be sufficient for adults, but I personally recommend eight. Anything up to ten and a half is good, but don’t sleep longer than 10.5 hours, ever. Don’t get less than seven, ever. Bad sleep habits are bad for normal folks, devastating for people with depression.

            Don’t look at a computer screen or phone two hours before you go to bed. Artificial light, especially blue light emitted by LCD screens, confuses your internal bio-clock. This bio- clock was created to respond to sunlight. When the sun goes down, our bio-clock produces Melatonin, a chemical that both makes us feel sleepy and chemically regulates our sleep cycles. When the clock is confused, melatonin is not produced when you fall asleep and yet is produced after you wake up. This is bad. Areas with inconsistent levels of sun (winter months, cloudy parts of the country) are danger zones for this happening. Bright light therapy helps. You are exposing your face with artificial sunlight to hit the ‘reset’ button on your bio-clock. This works beautifully. Your eyes have sensors that detect sunlight and they’ll fall for it. Right when you wake up, you want the sunlight lamp shining on your face for 30 minutes, but talk to your doctor about it. 

            I wear orange safety glasses for a couple of hours before bed as well. They are available cheaply online. Orange light has the smallest effect on your bio clock.

            Exercise. If you don’t get great physical exercise on a regular basis, you really, really should. It’s that simple. Exercise is crucial. If you already exercise, great. Keep it up. You brain is primed for the other steps to be effective; exercise triggers the release of neuro-trophic factors, which repair damaged neurons in the brain. Your brain is also healthier when your body is healthy in general. The effects of exercise may not be immediate. When I first started, immediately after my workouts, I felt the “runners high” as my skull was flooded with endorphins. But when these ran out, I would go back to feeling crappy like before. I would exercise for a week at a time, then quit. I never gave the benefits a chance to take root. The benefits of exercise accumulate over time. Every day, week, month you spend, you are raking neuro-trophic factors into your brain. Wonder why adults in peak fitness during their 50s have reduced incidences of dementia when they are 80? Set up the brain for success. Make sure you start slow. Talk to your doctor about how to start this.

            Over-the-counter supplements I take fish oil, SAMe, Vitamin D and Vitamin B Complex. Another thing to ask the doc.

            Find a psychiatrist. The right therapy and antidepressant can be an extended process of trial and error. It may not be a quick and easy, but when you find the right one, it will all feel worth it. When you find a psychiatrist, try whatever drug he/she recommends, and take it EXACTLY like they tell you. Do not deviate at all. BE PATIENT. If you don’t like the way a pill makes you feel, transition off it like your doctor says, and move on to the next candidate.

            Know thy enemy. These links from John Hopkins Medicine are highly recommended.

            Take care of the inner you. Try to smile and breathe deeply when you can. Four-to-five breaths a minute is a very good habit to try to adopt. Deep breaths boosts heart rate variability which lowers stress, important because depression generates a lot of stress. Shower in the morning even if you don’t plan on going anywhere. Try to visualize yourself in a positive light, if you can. Your self-image is something you can control. Change your scenery. The ideal is to find an inner state where you do not strive to leach happiness off of other people, being reliant on the approval of others to feel validated. Confidence is accepting who you are, even if how you feel is that you are not okay. In weird way, finding this emotional state is like a skill; you get better at it with practice. You will fail often in trying to feel this way; accept it.

LeAnne Downing is a Parent Coach from Denver, Colorado. Find more from her at


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