How Can I Help My Adult Child with Depression?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

My adult daughter is incredibly gifted (she tested around 130 IQ), but she has pretty serious depression. The sleeps-all-day, forgets-to-eat kind. It took her an extra two years to graduate from college because she kept turning assignments in late. Once she got her engineering degree, everyone thought she’d get a job easily, but she bombed all her interviews. Eventually she ended up working as a waitress.

She’s been in therapy for a year now, and her more serious symptoms have improved. My daughter says she wants to quit her job and go to graduate school. However, she keeps procrastinating on applications and missing deadlines. When I try to ask about her progress, she clams up and shuts me out.

I know she’s an adult now. I can’t do everything for her. But I would hate to see my daughter’s depression sabotage her career. All she needs is a little support for her condition.

Should I take a more active role in guiding my child? Or is my daughter’s procrastination a sign she’s not actually ready for graduate school? I want her to reach her full potential, but I don’t want to push her into a situation she can’t handle. —Not an Empty Nester Yet

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Dear Not an Empty Nester,

It can be so hard to watch someone you love struggle. It can be even harder when you feel so helpless. Your daughter is an adult, is in therapy, and has to be in charge of her future. Your desire to help her comes from a loving place, but sadly, it is not the kind of help she needs.

Often when we try to help our kids by smoothing their path or taking care of things for them, we unintentionally signal that we’re not confident in their ability to manage things. This can reinforce their self-doubts and contribute to their sense of helplessness and ineffectiveness. What our kids need more often is to hear and see from us that we believe they can manage their lives, and that we are available for support if they want it. Then we must step back and let them fall and pick themselves back up. It can be excruciating to watch, and of course we can intervene when they are in serious or life-threatening danger. Failure to reach potential, though, doesn’t meet that standard.

If she owns her choices and the results of those choices, good or bad, she will move into adulthood on better footing.

It’s also not unusual for kids, even as they enter adulthood, to push back against the expectations they believe others (especially parents) have of them. If your daughter feels you are more invested in her graduate school applications than she is, she may lose some of her own motivation. Ultimately, she will have to decide what she wants and how much she wants to pursue it. If she owns her choices and the results of those choices, good or bad, she will move into adulthood on better footing. Maybe grad school is the right choice for her now, maybe not. Either way, she must choose how to live her life and forge her own path.

If you are wondering how best to support your daughter, could you ask to meet with her and her therapist? Her therapist might be able to offer ideas about how to communicate effectively with your daughter and offer her loving support in a way that bolsters her sense of self-efficacy. If not, perhaps you could find a therapist to work with to share your fears and concerns and identify a way to manage the anxiety you feel on your daughter’s behalf.

Best of luck,

Erika Myers, MS, MEd, LPC, NCC

Erika Myers
Erika Myers, MS, MEd, LPC, NCC is a licensed psychotherapist and former educator specializing in working with families in transition (often due to separation or divorce) as well as individuals seeking support with relationship issues, parenting, depression, anxiety, grief/loss/bereavement, and managing major life changes. Although her theoretical orientation is eclectic, she most frequently uses a person-centered, strengths-based approach and cognitive behavioral therapy in her practice.
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  • Jennifer

    Jennifer

    May 2nd, 2018 at 11:46 AM

    Hi Erika, I am “Not an Empty Nester” and I wanted to say thank you for responding to my letter. I think you’re right, I need to let her “own her choices” as you put it. I just hate to see her like this and it’s hard not being able to help her.

  • Elvia

    Elvia

    June 20th, 2019 at 7:44 PM

    Hi Erika, My daughter is 29 years of age and living here at home. She has fallen into depression first because she had very hard years losing family members. Seemed like one after the other. Next she has hormone imbalance and got hormonal acne after having nasal surgery. She stated very unhappy seeing all this come down on herself and started to lose hair. Third, her boyfriend of 5 years had broke up with her last year and after he found out that she was doing much better came back into her life to do the same thing again on the same months, not talking to her and ignoring her. So therefore, this daughter of my is so depressed and just does not get motivated. She is being crying all day in bed but I did get her to eat. She keeps telling me she needs help but doesnt want to see a therapist or her primary doctor. Erika my hands are tide when she asks me to help her heart get happy again….. Don’t know what to do…. please help me!
    Thank you!
    Elvia

  • Karen

    Karen

    July 21st, 2019 at 8:11 AM

    Hi I find I am struggling with my daughter who is 38 and suffers with anxiety and depression, is it common for her to be really nasty toward me swearing and saying I am not there for her I am her mum and love her and this as been going on for 4 years it is only now she as managed to get a telephone appointment with a mental health team any help would be appreciated thank you Karen

  • Natty

    Natty

    August 14th, 2019 at 10:13 AM

    My Son who is 28 did the same things until finally he realized, medication can help you up to a certain point, is a tool, but a good therapist takes you a long way. two weeks ago he approached one that he was recommended. Hoping and praying he beings therapy soon. You also try to see a Therapist. I see mine once a month and it has helped me to coupe with the situation. Also support groups for you, they are free ones in Houston and most likely one where you live. Take care

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