Anxiety and depression are not feelings, they are states. That may sound like mincing words, but it’s an important distinction, especially when we’re talking with children about their feelings and concerns.
Anxiety and depression have become technical, psychological words directly connected to disorders as defined by the American Psychiatric Association. Nowadays many people take medications and are treated for anxiety and depression. Being in a depressed or anxious state, however, can be a normal reaction. We all experience the ups and downs of life. Confusion and uncertainty, too, are ordinary reactions in our day to day reality. Too often, I’ve seen kids talk about being depressed or anxious and their parents immediately make the connection to a disorder and want to make sure their children get the treatment they need. I’m not criticizing the parents. They are scared when they hear those dreaded words, afraid there is something wrong with their child, and they will do anything to help.
Kids hear references to anxiety and depression in the normal course of their daily lives. Notice when and how often you use these two words. Notice, also, when and how often you refer to being nervous, sad, worried, down, unhappy, distressed, jumpy, etc. Kids imitate language—that’s part of how they learn to speak. Being specific about our feeling experience is important in defining what’s going on, and ultimately what we need.
Part of what I’m advocating here is for a more descriptive vocabulary and one that invites on-going conversation. Depression and anxiety almost seem inert in their connotations. The other descriptive words are more ordinary and help create pathways to further discussion: “Well, what’s going on?” or “Tell me more.” That’s where we want to be. We want to find out what the real experience of the child (or adult!) is—what they are going through; how it really affects them; the meaning they are giving their experience. We want to know what they need and what we can do to help.
Questions that elicit this kind of information within a caring relationship are important as we seek to better understand one another. And better understanding strengthens the relationship as well as encourages on-going discussion. The “on-going” aspect is critical because it means the lines of communication are open and safe, in the context of a caring and loving relationship. That is key to our children’s (and our!) social and emotional growth and mental health.