Family & Education

What We Can Do About the Rise of Depression in Kids

BY Meg Meeker TIMEFebruary 1, 2022 PRINT

I just returned from a funeral of a patient who died from a drug overdose. I’m a pediatrician, not an internist. This girl was too young to die and to be depressed. Her life was filled with trials but she had great parents and supportive siblings. And I want to be very clear here: Her parents did everything right. They were fabulous parents and are in no way responsible for their daughter’s death. And that’s the real scary part. Sadly, this is a story that has become far too frequent.

I’ve been practicing pediatrics for 32 years and have never seen the prevalence of depression in kids that we have now. We can blame COVID and the isolation it mandated as the cause of rising depression and anxiety, and in part this is true. But before COVID, many teens we primed for this suffering by many factors at work.

Devastating Loneliness

First, our kids have been slowly lured into emotional and physical isolation over the past decade. If we believe that each of us is born for the purpose of being in relationships with God and loved ones, isolation is devastating—particularly to the young, tender heart. Our need for real connection runs deep. The insidious invasion of screens has shown them a different and easier way to relate to friends. We can think that kids are more connected by texts and social media but this is a ruse and we, and they, know it. Screens cause profound loneliness. We cannot overestimate this. Kids turn to phones to find connection, but they don’t deliver. It leaves kids feeling worse.

Then came COVID. The struggle to find genuine connection that kids had before COVID rose dramatically. Quarantines magnified the problem 10-fold. Some kids simply couldn’t cope. They tried harder to connect by spending more time on their phones but when this failed, many simply withdrew from life.

What We Teach Kids

Apart from screens, we have taught kids that independence, uniqueness, and autonomy are laudable qualities. Kept in proper perspective, they are. But we haven’t done this. We have taught teach our kids that success is reached when these are acquired without the balance of dependence, similarity, and mutual work.

When kids refuse advice from parents, dress as outrageously as they can, and constantly reject parents’ wisdom, we tell them they are strong-willed and successful. But we know better and so do they. Independence at too young of an age causes them to detach from others; uniqueness drives them into a bizarre land and makes them feel ashamed; and autonomy teaches them that they need no one—not even good parents or loved ones who care. The result is that they feel hurt and confused.

Tender Hearts

Fractured families cause inordinate and often lifelong pain for kids. No one wants to hear this but kids want to say it. They don’t “do just fine” during a divorce or many other traumas. They aren’t “resilient” like we want to believe they are. They are children with soft hearts depending upon adults to make their lives secure. When divorce, COVID, death, or even too much social media hit, the ground beneath them rips. Without parental help, they simply don’t know where to land. Some don’t land. They become depressed.

Please understand, I’m not pinning depression on parents because the illness is far too complex. Genetics, environment, relationships, pain, and personality all contribute to depression. When a child begins life with many of these against him, one more bout of pain, confusion, or even the wrong friends can tip him over the edge. The best that we can do for our kids is to try to control things in their environment that will push them toward depression. This we can do. We can boldly identify what works against them and get rid of them. Unfortunately, many parents are afraid to. We bow to the mantra that “all kids have phones, spend too much time on social media, on video games, in their rooms, dabble in drinking and weed, and there’s nothing we can do about it lest we make them feel like outcasts.”

These, my friends are none other than excuses we concoct for ourselves so that we don’t have to be the bad guys. I get it. My son and I had a knockdown, dragged-out fight over video games when he was in high school. We wouldn’t allow video games in the house. When he got to college, he thanked us. He saw too many friends spend hours in dark rooms playing video games for $45,000 a year.

No Excuses

Our kids are living in a culture that is toxic to their mental health. It came to be this way slowly over time. Some of the changes we are responsible for, and some we aren’t. But we have no excuse now to keep from doing what we know is best for our kids.

As a parent and grandparent, I know how hard this is. But that’s no excuse for any of us to back away from doing what is right for our kids. At the end of the day, we must make some very difficult decisions and then have the guts to act on them. Do what you can to keep your child from being emotionally isolated. Gradually decrease screen time for kids and for yourself and increase face-to-face time with them. Encourage your kids to meet with friends in person. Teach them that they need family, friends, and God. Show them how to connect with family genuinely— spend time on weekends together, carve out screen-free time for everyone in the family, and talk with your kids. Listen to them. Laugh with them and play games.

These may not ward off all depression but they sure are a good start. There is no doubt in my mind that we parents have the power to change the course of our kids’ lives. So let’s refuse to believe that we don’t. I’ve seen parents profoundly impact the course of their kids’ lives over the past 30 years. When parents kick into gear, the chances that their kids end up in a good place rather than a bad one rise exponentially. For the sake of our kids, let’s have the chutzpah to kick into those gears.

Meg Meeker
Margaret Meeker, M.D., is a pediatrician, mother, and best-selling author of books on parenting.
You May Also Like