Helping children with depression

Joey Garcia

I am thinking of leaving my husband because of my stepson. We get his kids every other weekend, along with my son. (My daughter lives with us.) Before we married, we agreed that all the kids should be treated equally, but that has never happened. His son is argumentative and doesn’t listen to anything I say. My husband is indifferent to my kids, especially my daughter. She wants his love and doesn’t get it. When his kids do something bad, he yells for a few minutes, and then the problem is over. But he punishes my kids severely.

His kids only call him when they want something. It has to hurt my husband. His son just sleeps and eats. He weighs over 250 pounds. My husband expects all the rest of the kids to do things, but he won’t make his son do anything. I realize my husband doesn’t see his kids much. I think he feels guilty, but he needs to see his son for what he is: manipulative, argumentative and very disrespectful. Please help; my resentment grows stronger every day.

You resent your stepson’s lack of respect, but how can he give you what he does not have? Clearly, experiences in his past have conspired to erode his ability to respect himself. He is depressed. In the groundbreaking book The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self, psychologist Alice Miller writes, “Depression consists of a denial of one’s own emotional reactions. This denial begins in the service of an absolutely essential adaptation during childhood and indicates a very early injury. There are many children who have not been free, right from the beginning, to experience the very simplest of feelings, such as discontent, anger, rage, pain, even hunger—and, of course, enjoyment of their own bodies.”

Your daughter and stepson share a common ailment: Both are misunderstood by a stepparent, and neither receives the consistent love, acceptance, guidance and affection so necessary for emotional health. As an adult, you must commit to the reality that much of parenting is selfless service. Parents must excavate their own motivations and tend to their own expectations, or their children (or stepchildren) will bear the wounds.

That doesn’t mean your stepson is permitted to scream at you. It does mean he needs your support to learn how to express his emotions in a genuine way. As Miller writes, “The true opposite of depression is neither gaiety nor absence of pain, but vitality—the freedom to experience spontaneous feelings. It is part of the kaleidoscope of life that these feelings are not only happy, beautiful, or good but can reflect the entire range of human experience, including envy, jealousy, rage, disgust, greed, despair, and grief. … Our access to the true self is possible only when we no longer have to be afraid of the intense emotional world of early childhood. Once we have experienced and become familiar with this world … we no longer need to keep it hidden behind the prison walls of illusion. We know now who and what caused our pain, and it is exactly this knowledge that gives us freedom at last from the old pain.”

Miller also points out that freedom from depression occurs only when self-esteem is based on the authenticity of one’s own feelings. That is in direct contrast to programs that attempt to build self-esteem by identifying and perfecting certain qualities, like vision, focus or responsibility. The power of Miller’s approach is obvious: If feelings are validated and processed, positive qualities develop naturally. So, treat the difficulties of your stepson and daughter equally. Show them how to honor and tend to their feelings, instead of stuffing their feelings until they implode, and their suffering can be healed.

Meditation of the week
Catholic Bishop Thomas Gumbleton believes that the opposite of love is indifference. He writes, “Indifference is pure apathy, lack of interest and total unresponsiveness to a person or situation. One of the hardest things I have encountered during my involvement with the peace movement is the indifference of most people to the violence in our world. … To me this is the number one issue for the future of the planet and for our spiritual future. Have we allowed the images of death and destruction on the nightly news to harden our hearts to the extent that we no longer react to them at all? … Do we care so very little about future generations that we leave them a legacy of aggression and death?”

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