The Power of Kindness

By Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S • 2 min read


“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted. “Aesop

I was a new mom, trying to manage a crying infant and two grumpy stepsons at the library.

One of my arms held the baby; the other balanced a stack of children’s books and two DVDs. We were all tired and frustrated and ready to get out of there, and the kids were eager to watch their movies.

The librarian scanned my card, and then reminded me of the fine I have failed to pay. No surprise there. As I reached in my purse for my wallet, my heart sank. My wallet was sitting at home on the table. I had no cash, no checkbook, no way to pay the fine.

I asked the librarian to hold the books and movies for us, thinking I would run home and then come back. The baby started wailing, my stepsons began arguing with each other.

Then, the most surprising thing happened. The man next to me leaned over and handed the librarian a $20, and asked her whether it was enough to pay my fine. She looked as bewildered as I was. I didn’t know this man. Why was he paying my fine?

I told him that it’s not that I didn’t have the money; it’s just that I left my wallet at home. He simply asked that I do something kind for another person someday, and walked out.

Acts of kindness have the power to change people’s lives. Aesop wrote that “no act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” It’s something we all too often forget.

We falsely believe that only the big acts of kindness count. That’s simply not true. Not everyone can hand out hundred dollar bills on the street, but everyone can say a kind word or do a simple and free kind action. 

I know how I felt after a stranger paid my library fine. I was elated that someone I did not know would do something so kind. What cost him $20 was worth far more to me.

It meant my grouchy kids wouldn’t have to drive home and then drive back. It meant my small daughter could take a nap on time. And for a mother who was feeling pretty crappy for forgetting my wallet, it made my day. The fact that I continue to remember it eight years later is a testament to the power of small acts of kindness.

The power of kindness is real. There is scientific research that says that kindness is a predictor of a successful relationship. Even the magazine Scientific American has discussed the role that kindness plays in human evolution.

Kindness changes lives. Humans are social creatures. We bond with one another, we thrive in community, and strong family units are filled with compassion and kindness.

Oxytocin, the so-called love hormone, plays a role in empathy, compassion, and kindness.  It’s a hormone that’s released in childbirth and nursing, and is a major contributor to the bonding that takes place with a mother and her infant. It binds us to each other. When people do good things for others, it’s released. And the more oxytocin a person has in their system, the more likely they are to do kind things.

In December, 2012, an idea flooded the internet for people to do 26 acts of kindness for the 26 lives that were lost when a gunman entered a school and opened fire. People challenged their selves and others to do random acts of kindness and post the pictures to inspire others.

The acts of kindness ranged from paying for the coffee of the stranger behind you at Starbucks to giving dog food to a shelter to paying off thousands of dollars on items at a Walmart layaway right before Christmas.

When I think about how the act of kindness from a stranger at a library made a difference in my life, I wonder about the thousands upon thousands of lives that were changed during the kindness campaign in 2012. The truth is we will never know the effect it had, but I know it was great.

Kindness spreads kindness in a sort of never ending spiral. It’s a spiral I hope never ends.

If you’re interested in finding more ideas for acts of kindness, there’s a website devoted to it called Random Acts of Kindness.

Photo from Shutterstock

10 Tips for Finding a Great Therapist

By Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S • 2 min read

therapist2015Making the choice to begin counseling can be difficult; finding a therapist that you connect with and can help you is challenging.

Google will gladly overwhelm you with thousands of counselors or therapists in less than a second.

Therapy sites such as or Psychology Today offer search tools for specific cities and states.

As a therapist, I’ve had people find me through my blog, a friend, newspaper articles or a TV appearance, and Google. These can be valuable places to start, but there are many others.

Here are 10 tips for finding a great therapist.

  1. Ask around. Some of the best therapists are found by word of mouth. Friends and family members are often willing to share the name of their therapist, or a good one they’ve heard of by word of mouth.
  2. Use the internet, but check potential therapists out. Make sure they’re licensed, read online reviews, check out things they’ve written. This will give you an idea of their treatment modality and topics they’re familiar and comfortable with. You can even Google such things as “depression therapist” or “grief therapist” to help you narrow your search down.
  3. See whether they offer a free consultation, such as a phone call or even a brief visit. This can be a time to ask questions and get a feel for how your potential therapist communicates.
  4. Listen to your gut. When you first meet a therapist, do you feel comfortable and safe? Is s/he someone that you feel you can trust? Is the space inviting and private?
  5. Ask questions: How long have you been in practice? What is your license/degree in? What areas do you specialize in? How do you handle it if I have a crisis? Can I email you? Call you? Text you? Have you ever had your license suspended or revoked? What about confidentiality?
  6. Consider therapists that don’t take your insurance. You may pay more, but you could also be reimbursed by your insurance company for some part of it. In addition, clinicians who do not take insurance are able to keep your information more confidential simply because they do not report to your insurance company (which requires your therapist to give you a diagnosis), and your insurance company will not be involved in deciding how many sessions you should have.
  7. If you live in a small town or rural area where there are only a few therapists, consider either online/video or phone sessions. This works out very well for some people, and will give you a wide range of therapists to choose from. Keep in mind that most states only allow their practitioners to practice in the state they were licensed in. For example, if you live in Oregon you may not be able to use a licensed therapist in Wyoming.
  8. Keep looking and take your time.  If you haven’t found someone you click with and feel good about, you are not obligated to stay. Therapy can be a large financial and emotional investment, so keep looking and searching until you find a great fit.
  9. Know what those letters mean. After their name, counselors and therapists will usually list what they are licensed as. To add to the confusion, states often use different letters to describe the same thing. Here is a partial list to help you sort it out.  The list is incomplete, as it doesn’t include LISW (Licensed Independent Social Worker), which is what clinical social workers are licensed within my state, Ohio.
  10. Ask a therapist. If you have a friend or family member in the field, as them whom they would recommend.

Finding a great therapist may not be quick, but taking the time to find a good fit will save you time, money, and a good deal of frustration. A great therapist can help you make changes that will help you the rest of your life.

Photo from Shutterstock

When Love Hurts

By Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S • 2 min read


This is a story of two little birds, both cockatiels.

It’s about a kind of love that is destructive. It’s about when love hurts.

It’s also about healing, growing, and changing.

Once there were  two cockatiels who came to a rescue from a hoarding situation. One was named Mama Bird, and one was named Pretty Boy. They were mother and son.

Pretty Boy was quite pretty. He was gorgeous gray, full feathered, and looked like a healthy cockatiel should.

Mama Bird was not pretty. She looked like a turkey vulture with a pink, bald head and long bald neck. She had one lone feather sticking out of her head and a bulging eye. The feathers on her face were plucked out, so her ear holes lay open and exposed.


Mama Bird was plucked bare, and it was Pretty Boy who had harmed her.

On occasion, birds that are in stressful situations will pluck themselves or their cage mates.  Although Mama Bird was strongly attached to Pretty Boy, the relationship caused permanent damage.

I was looking for a companion bird for my cockatiel, Sunshine. And so I was introduced to Mama Bird and Pretty Boy.

Although Mama was not pretty, when I held her and touched her bare wrinkly head, her eyes closed and she immediately calmed down.

When I said that she was sweet and ugly, my eight-year-old daughter chastised me. “She’s beautiful, mommy,” she lectured. “I love her.”

Mama Bird has now been renamed Stormy, which fits her looks and her history, but not her personality. She is gentle and sweet.

Sometimes love hurts. Sometimes love is damaging and obsessive and destructive.

Sometimes, those we love and are loved by wound us.

When I work with clients who are in abusive or destructive relationships, they will often tell me how their spouse or partner, parent or sibling, was a good person, that they didn’t mean to cause the harm they did.

I believe them.

You can be a good parent and inadvertently hurt your child. You can be a caring spouse but say things that are damaging.

It is okay to distance yourself from someone who is hurting you. The distance may be as simple as saying ‘no’ to a get together or more complicated, such as moving away from an abusive partner.

Giving yourself space doesn’t mean that the other person or people in the relationship are horrible. In its simplest term, it means that the combination of you and them is caustic.

Pretty Boy is a good bird. Stormy is a good bird. But, they are not good together, and Stormy suffered for it.

Now that they’re apart, both are thriving. Pretty Boy is in an aviary with plenty of space and lots of other birds. Stormy has bonded with Sunshine and is healing.

She will never look like a conventionally beautiful bird, but her life is happier now, and she has a new beginning.

Love is complicated, but it should never, ever hurt. If love causes damage, something is very wrong.

Abusive relationships don’t start off with fists and cruel words. They begin with control and with rules, expectations and raised voices.

Stormy’s abuse began as healthy grooming, and slowly became obsessive and damaging. It’s like the proverbial frog in boiling water. It stays in the pot because the water warmed so quickly it didn’t notice until it was nearly dead.

The task of identifying harmful relationships often falls on those of us on the outside who notice that things aren’t quite right.

It can be difficult to be the one who speaks up and identifies that a friend’s or relative’s partner is behaving in a harmful way, but it is necessary.

You may be the one whose voice is heard at the right time, who helps a friend or loved one gain a new beginning outside of a hurtful relationship.

Today, I wish for you the wisdom to identify when a relationship has gone astray, and the strength to take action when action is required. Your voice may just be the one that is heard clearly for the first time.

The Power of “NO”

By Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S • 2 min read



My mother says that my first word was no.

I’m not surprised that this was the first true word that came out of my  mouth.

Many children sing out the joys of no regularly and with enthusiasm. “Would you like more potatoes?” “NO!” “Put on your shoes please.” “NO!” “Time for a nap.” “NO!”

And why not? Children learn very early on that when they say no, something big and important happens. It could be that the food they dislike is taken away, or that they are given a different book. A tantrum of no’s extends the time before they go down for a nap.

If the no turns into a string of screaming no’s, mom or dad reacts strongly, usually with anger or frustration.

No is powerful, strong, and assertive.

It doesn’t require niceties, delicacies, or qualifiers.

What is it about the word no that makes it so hard to say? The answer could lie within yourself.

If you’re like many people, saying no is something you’re not particularly good at.

It could be that you can say no, but with qualifiers: “no, not right now, maybe another day,” when you really meant to simply say no. You do not have a desire to do it another day, but wish to make your no softer or nicer.

It might have been as you grew up, you were not taught empowerment. Maybe you were told that good girls or good children don’t say the word no.

Some kids are brought up with ideas of what no is and isn’t. And if you were a child whose mother or father taught that the word no was not to be said to adults, or whose parents required blind obedience, no isn’t a word that you uttered much. Maybe you were even afraid to say it.

There is a long list of things no isn’t:

It isn’t impolite

It isn’t rude

It isn’t mean

It isn’t bad.

No is simply one word that is a negative response. Its power lies in both its simplicity and its one meaning.

Some people feel the need to add niceties to no: “I’m so sorry, this week has been busy and my mother is coming over at 2:00, then the…” Compare this to “No, I’m busy,” or even just “No.”

If you were taught that nice people don’t say no, then you’ve got some unlearning to do. One word does not make you nice or not nice, polite, or impolite.

It does give you the power of choice.

I generally don’t give my client’s homework to do, but if you’re someone who has difficulty saying no to others, there’s an exercise I’d like you to try.

For the next 24 hours, say no 20 times. At least a few of those times should be times when you would normally say yes or times when it’s awkward and uncomfortable to say

It could be that there is someone in your life who you rarely say no to: a child, parent, or spouse possibly. They may have a strong reaction to hearing you tell them no. 

Consider how this makes you feel and how the other person reacted. Then post a comment here.

Let the Psych Central community support you as you become stronger and more assertive.

My hope is that by learning how to say no you will grow into a person who is strong and assertive instead of passive. We only get to go through this life once. Make the most of it.


Photo from Shutterstock


10 Things to Say to a Loved One Who Struggles with Depression

By Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S • 2 min read

shutterstock_1961611If you’ve ever been depressed, you know that awful feeling when well meaning people give advice that simply makes things worse.

There are lots of blogs that talk about what not to say to someone who is depressed.

Here are 10 positive things to say to help.

  1. I’m sorry you’re struggling, and wish I could make it better for you. This phrase doesn’t imply that you understand what they’re going through or that they need to do something. It simply states the truth, and your desire to help. It also provides sympathy.
  2. How can I help? Ask: do you need someone to watch your children? Do you need me to pick up prescriptions? I made too much lasagna tonight. Can I drop some off? Be as specific as you can, but allow space for them to ask for what their needs are. It may as simple as picking helping with housework for an hour.
  3. You are important to me, and I care about you. When someone is depressed, their mind can turn relationships around and make them believe that they are all alone in life. Even if it doesn’t make sense to you, verbalize what they mean to you. Send a card or flowers that simply say you’re thinking or praying for them.
  4. If you’re interested, I know a great therapist/psychiatrist. They may not be ready for that step, but in the future they will know at least one resource.
  5. I love you. Say this whenever you think of it. Say it whenever you see them. Feeling unloved goes hand in had with feeling depressed.
  6. Would you like me to come hang out for a bit? Depression isolates people, and for some, just having someone else around can be comforting. It could be that you watch a movie or knit, or just talk and gossip.
  7. Would you like me to tell ________ about this? ALWAYS, ALWAYS ask before you share personal information. Your loved one may want their pastor or other friends to know, but they may not. This decision needs to be completely respected.
  8. I know this feels as if it will last forever, but it won’t. Depression is like a big black hole that swallows light. People who are depressed may not be able to see an end to their pain. You, someone on the outside, can provide that hope for them.
  9. You are loved by many people. And list them. This is not a time for guilt –don’t say how awful Aunt Mary would feel if your friend killed themselves. It is a chance for you to remind them of their support group. Be careful that this doesn’t turn into blame or making them feel worse.
  10. You are a strong person, and I’ll help you however I can. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. When people are depressed, they often feel weak and worn down. They may not know that you are someone who they can ask for help.

Loving someone with depression can be hard at times.

Treat your loved one as you would want to be treated if you had a serious illness, which depression is. Before you open your mouth, ask whether what you are going to say is helpful and kind. Unless it is both, you may want to rethink it.

True Greatness: The Pain of Hidden Illness

By Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S • 1 min read


I had a very good friend named Mary who suffered from a disease called Lupus.

Lupus can be a mild disease, or it can be horrific and fatal. It can go from mild to severe, back to mild again.

My friend was very sick, and we’d often talk about how she looked fine on the outside, but her body was waging war on itself.

She was yelled at for parking in a handicapped space although she could barely walk. Early on when her disease was beginning, her family struggled to understand why she was so tired and sore. They didn’t believe that this beautiful young woman who looked healthy on the outside was suffering greatly on the inside.

Katie was a young college woman I worked with years ago. She was bright, cheerful, intelligent, and funny. She also suffered depression so deep that she regularly cut her body with razors and constantly thought about how she could kill herself.

She managed to get through college with good grades and was accepted into graduate school, all while feeling as if she did not deserve to live. No one guessed at her pain.

AvaLou is a bright 2 year old who has kidney disease. Like Katie and Mary, to look at her you would not guess the battles she has already fought in her young life.

She has had countless surgeries and procedures on her small body. She is a fighter, but she also struggles and hurts, and her body is waging war to survive. People have a hard time accepting that she has limitations because she looks fine, until you see the scars on her back. 

In the months before Mary died, we would text because she lost her hearing. I wrote her this piece to let her know how strong she was.

My hope is you will be reminded of your own greatness and the greatness of those struggling with hidden illnesses.


True Greatness

Sometimes, I have to remind myself where true greatness lies.

It is not found in PhDs, or beauty, or wealth, or recognition.

True greatness is painful.

It is watching as others run up mountains

While you take two steps on the trail.

Others cannot see that your body or mind, or spirit is ill.

The world doesn’t know what battles you’ve fought,

Or what deep scars you bare.

They don’t know that your two steps are your mountain,

A mountain many said you would not reach.

True greatness lives in those who may never reach the top of the mountain,

But who takes the first step anyway.

And even though their strength is silent, and their beauty masked,

Those with true greatness know the battles they’ve been through,

The invisible burdens they carry,

And see their own beauty and strength

When others cannot.

Dear Daughter: 5 Life Lessons for My Child

By Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S • 2 min read



As my daughter enters the middle of her eighth year, she is changing and growing rapidly.

She vacillates between the feelings and needs of a child, and the desires of independence of a young teen.

Eight years old is an age of rapid maturation for many children. She picks up on the nuances of relationships. She hears the news and is afraid sometimes. She is learning her own boundaries and setting limits, but still returning to the safety of family.

Here are 5 life lessons for my eight year old.

Dear daughter,

1. You are your own person, separate from me.

It warms my heart when you imitate me and say you want to be just like me when you grow up. But as you’re learning, I am far from perfect. Your life is your very own. I want to watch as you bloom and grow into your own being. You ask me constantly what you should do and get frustrated when I guide you back to what your thoughts and feelings are. As much as it pains me to say it, I will not always be around. You will gain independence and confidence. Have faith in yourself.

2. I will be there for you when you succeed and when you fail.

Yes, I will share in the highs of your life as you do wonderful things. I will also be there when things don’t work out, when your heart is broken, when your soul feels crushed. You can yell at me, curse me, and tell me you hate me. I will still be here for you, because you are my child. I may not like what you are doing sometimes, but I will always like (and love) you. Nothing in the universe will change this.

3. Reaching out for help, support, or love is never wrong.

I’m a therapist, so you’ve grown up seeing me helping others through rough times. I hope you’ve also noticed the times when I’ve reached out for support from friends and family.We do not live life alone.  If someone is hurting your feelings or making you sad, please tell me or someone else you trust. If you feel like a teacher is unfair, let me know. I may not fix things, because right now my role is to help you figure out how to work through difficulties. But I will be there to love you and support you. It’s never wrong to ask for help or love. Ever.

4. Life is full of pain, but it’s also full of joy.

So many things in life cause pain; you can’t escape hurting. But always look for the good, for the joy, for the peace. If you search for it, you will find it. As a young parent, the hardest thing for me to learn was that I cannot protect you from the pain in this world. I can promise you that there is happiness amid the heartache. You may not find it right away. It may seem hidden or absent. Just keep looking. It’s there.

5. You are loved.

Oh, how you are loved. Your family and friends love you, as do your pets and teachers and neighbors. You give so much to the world. Open your eyes and see how much is returned to you. You are loved not because of what you do or don’t do, not because of your talents or your endearing smile. You are loved because you are a light in this universe, and that light encompasses all that you are.

As you grow older, our relationship will change, but I will be here with you, helping you the best I can.

I love you to the moon and back,


3 Steps to Battle Self-Hatred

By Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S • 2 min read


Dear Reader,

If I were to sneak inside your head, just for a moment, what would I hear?

At your darkest moment, when you’re all alone with your thoughts and your thoughts are the things of chaos, when you can’t sleep, and you are at your lowest, what words would slip into being?

Is your head full of hate to yourself? Do you chastise and berate your actions of the day? Do you hear anger? Chastisement? Disgust?

If I could magically give you one thing this year, I would give you the gift of self-kindness.

I’ll bet you’re pretty nice to others. I’m fairly certain you would never be as harsh to them as you are to yourself.

When someone makes a mistake or says something that’s wrong, you may smile to yourself, but you don’t jump out of your seat and call them a moron (or worse). You certainly don’t stay up at night thinking about them.

But somehow, you do this to yourself.

Learning to love and accept yourself isn’t something that comes easily for some of us.

When kids are bullied, when teens face pressures they can’t take, when children are taught that their worth is based on what they do or don’t do, say or don’t say, they end up taking on the voices of the people who are cruel to them.

The mean words that are said to them, they say to themselves.

Maybe this is you.

When I work with people who struggle with self-hatred, there are three steps that we work through, often more than once.

STEP ONE: Identify the source of the self-hating thoughts

Can you recognize where each of the self-hating voices comes from? Is it from the hypercritical parent? Or are the words from the bullies from school that made you so sad and scared as a second grader? Maybe it’s the voice of an ex that made you hate your body.

Sometimes the people who are supposed to build us up and help us grow, stomp us down and harm our soul.

It isn’t right; it isn’t fair. But remember that although it may feel true, it isn’t, even if the words come from people you trust.

STEP TWO: Challenge the self-hatred and negative thoughts

When you begin to hear those cruel and harmful criticisms, I challenge you to use that intellectual part of yourself to take a step back and think carefully if they’re true. Parts of the words may be true. You may be overweight, but you’re not disgusting or lazy. You may have failed a test, but you’re not stupid.

It isn’t easy, but you can change that voice in your head. Part of you knows the words it says aren’t true.

STEP THREE: Replace negative thoughts with more honest, kind, and accurate ones.

The next and final step may be the most difficult. You need to replace those untrue, harmful thoughts and words with ones that are truthful and kind.

That voice that tells you people only like you because of what you do for them, and states they’ll reject you the moment you have nothing left to give? You need to remind yourself that it’s simply not true.

Remind yourself of the truth that you know deep inside you, that you are valued as a human, as a person, as a companion, and a friend.

Remind yourself of this every day, every hour if you need to.

Challenge yourself on the lies that flood your head. No one else can do this for you.

A friend or a therapist, a lover, or a child can tell you a million times how wonderful you are, but until you can hear the words in your own voice you will not believe them.

Dear reader, I know this is not easy, because you’ll be challenging years, perhaps decades, of negative voices that have been said to you throughout your lifetime. But it can be done.

Find someone to join you on this journey if you can, someone who believes in the true and good you. Listen to their voice when yours becomes negative.

As I’ve said so many times before, we are not meant to live this life alone.

Wishing you a kind, gentle New Year,





Should You Make Your Child Apologize? A Therapist’s View

By Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S • 2 min read


Like all parents, there are a lot of things I make my child to do.

I make her brush her teeth. I make her to go to school when she doesn’t want to. She is not allowed to ride her bike without a helmet or to walk around the block after dark.

But, one thing I don’t make her do is apologize. 

I realize this is different than a lot of parents. Like many things I do as a mom, not requiring her to say she’s sorry is something that has evolved as I’ve gotten to know the little person I’m raising.

Now before I get too much farther, let me point out that my child is not a brat who goes around hitting kids or calling them names. For the most part, she’s a kind child who deeply wants to do the right thing.

The other day she told me that while she was at a friend’s house, she dropped her friend’s small toy on the carpet and lost it. She didn’t tell her friend what happened.

She felt bad about this, and after holding it in for weeks she asked for my help.

We talked about what happened. I asked her what she wanted to do to make it better, and what would make her feel better. We called and talked with her friend and her friend’s mom about what she had done.

My daughter was sorry, and she told her friend this on her own, without being promoted, requested or required to. 

She genuinely felt bad, and knew that admitting what she had done and working to make it better would make her feel better. She wouldn’t have to carry that burden of guilt around anymore. And of course she felt tons better after confessing her secret and offering to make it right.

What is the point of an apology? 

Have you ever had someone say they’re sorry when you know they’re not? As parents, we want our kids to be polite and to do the right thing. We want them to know how to get along in the world and not stick out as someone who is rude or unkind. But fake apologizes aren’t the way to go.

If you say “I’m sorry” when you’re not, what’s the point? Do we really want to encourage our kids to say something that’s not true for an imagined sense of peace? 

I’m all for politeness and manners. “Please” and “Thank you” are important, as is “excuse me” and other formalities.

“I’m sorry” is not a formality in my opinion. It’s an expression of a feeling.

Forcing someone to lie about their feelings is ridiculous. I’m not saying that we should all go around saying every true thing we feel out loud. Auntie Mildred doesn’t need to know that you hate what she gave you for your birthday.

What we should do is be both compassionate and honest.

I strive to help my child recognize her inner moral compass, because I won’t always be around to tell her what’s right and what’s wrong.

I realize that each child is different, but I do not make my child apologize.

I want her to look inside herself, to think more closely about the situation.

I want her to consider what others feel and to develop empathy and sympathy.

I want her to live thoughtfully and consciously.

As the famous Jimminy Cricket once said, “always let your conscience be your guide.”

My daughter will always have her conscience, because she won’t always have a parent to guide her.  

There will be plenty of people in her life telling her what to do and say. Social media screams from the rooftops.

If I can help her develop and trust her own sense of right and wrong, that is a gift that will last forever, whether I’m around or not. 

A previous version of this blog post is from

photo from Shutterstock

Sadness or Depression? Recognizing Mental Illness in Tweens and Teens

By Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S • 2 min read


Kids carry around a ton of emotion.

As infants, they communicate with cries, screams, and eventually smiles and laughter.

Toddlers grow and begin to use spoken language in addition to laughter, hugs, biting, hitting, and crying.

The childhood years are generally calm. A second grader has not yet entered the emotional turmoil of the teen or preteen years, and has increased social skills that they didn’t have as a toddler or even as a preschool child.

Once a boy or girl hits the preteen years, the hormonal changes that will eventually take them into adulthood begin.

If you’ve ever talked with a group of parents about their own adolescent years, you’ll hear words like “chaotic” and “angry,” “depressed,” “anxious”.

Teens and tweens are full of incredibly strong and complex emotions. Their moods change and shift. They can be explosive and angry one minute, and the next minute write you a sweet note about how much they love you.

As a parent, grandparent, teacher or friend, how can you differentiate between the mood swings of an emotionally healthy adolescent and a teen who may be struggling with a more serious mental illness such as depression?

Even with adults it can be difficult to tell the difference between feeling blue and having depression. With teens it’s harder.

As a parent, you know your child best. If something feels off with your child, talk with them further or seek professional help. If you’re a caring adult in a teen’s life and notice something that is concerning, don’t hesitate to reach out to the teen or their parents.

One thing I hear time and time again from adults who were depressed as teens is that they wish their parents had understood and gotten them help. Don’t be afraid to reach out and seek help if you see some of these signs.

  • Engaging in self-injury. Any type of self-harm is cause for concern. Some teens cut or burn, others will pierce or scratch themselves. While it may or may not be a deliberate call for help, it’s a sign that something is wrong and should not be ignored.
  • Withdrawing more than usual. This is tricky because part of being a teenager is withdrawing from the family unit. And while adults with depression tend to withdraw from everyone, teens who are depressed will often keep a few close friends around, or they will change groups of friends.
  • Major change in school performance. If your previously A or B student begins failing tests, it’s time to look closely at what is going on. Depression can cause kids to not care about school or grades anymore, or it can interfere with their concentration in the classroom and cause grades to plummet.
  • Drastic change in eating and/or sleeping habits. Is your teen suddenly refusing meals or eating an excessive amount? Is he or she sleeping for most of the day? Spending days in bed is a huge red flag for depression or a physical illness, and should be evaluated by a physician. Huge changes in eating habits can be a sign of depression or an eating disorder.
  • Increased agitation. Tweens and teens don’t always manifest their depression in the same ways as adults. Instead of being mopey or sad, depression can show itself as grumpiness, moodiness, or agitation. A depressed teen may have explosive outbursts that seem uncharacteristic.
  • Saying that they feel hopeless or depressed. Some tweens or teens come right out and say that they’re depressed or even suicidal. Get them help, even if you’re not sure they need it. Having a nonjudgmental adult to talk freely to is never a bad thing, and could be life-saving.
  • Drug or alcohol use. Teens, like adults, sometimes seek out drugs or alcohol to improve their mood, and this can be an indication of depression or anxiety.

As smart as they seem, tweens and teens often don’t have the courage or the words to ask for the help that they need.

The stigma of mental illness has decreased during the past 20 years or so, but it can still be something your adolescent feels embarrassed about. They may not know the signs of mental illness or be able to see it within themselves, so it’s up to the adults in their lives to recognize it and find them the help they need.


photo from shutterstock


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