In recent posts, we’ve discussed the very important reality of understanding depression in children, depression in teens, and their risk for suicide. Many parents may now be wondering if childhood or teen depression can be prevented? That’s one of the questions we’ll be addressing today. We’ll also be discussing what we need to know to best help those we love who are depressed.
Can Childhood and/or Teen Depression be Prevented?
A family history of depression increases the risk that a child will suffer from depression themselves. Additionally, children whose parents suffered from depression tend to develop their first episode of depression earlier than children whose parents did not struggle with depression. Furthermore, children from chaotic families or who abuse substances are also at increased risk.
Parents often ask me “How can we know our child is depressed?” The short but accurate answer is, it can be had for a parent to tell. But what I often tell parents is to trust your instincts. If a parent thinks something is wrong, it probably is. Furthermore, the litmus test for depression is longevity and continuity of symptoms across multiple scenarios.
It’s important to recognize that moodiness typical in childhood or adolescence may come and go, but depression has a constancy over time that distinguishes it from the normal trials of growing up. A parent should begin to have some concern if their child’s symptoms last more than two weeks and persist in a variety of settings.
Contributors to Depression
After a pediatric or adult patient was diagnosed with depression in my office, most patients then quickly ask “What causes it?” While knowing the cause rarely makes anyone feel better, it is helpful from an educational stance. I prefer not to speak of “causes” per se because it is difficult in any individual person what caused the depression, especially when multiple factors tend to work together in any situation to contribute to depression. Because of this, I prefer to speak of contributors to depression.
1. One well known contributor to depression is our chemical makeup. We all have neurotransmitters in our brain, which are naturally occurring chemicals that contribute to our mood and mental well-being such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. When these neurotransmitters become deficient, we may experience changes in our mood, energy, appetites, etc., all contributing to the symptoms of mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. It is these neurotransmitters which are impacted by the numerous medications prescribed for pharmacotherapy.
2. Another contributor to depression is our genetics. When a relative has suffered from a mental health disorder such as depression, an individual is three to five times more likely to suffer from it as well. That increased likelihood of suffering from depression increases significantly when more than one relative has suffered. This does not mean that because a relative suffered from depression you will also, but it does mean that there is an increased risk.
3. In addition to our chemical makeup and genetics, another important contributor are what we call secondary factors. When we speak of secondary contributors to depression, we are really talking about medical disorders that contribute to many of the signs and symptoms of depression. Many medical disorders present with symptoms that overlap with depression such as thyroid disorders, diabetes, vitamin deficiencies, etc. With such medical disorders we will often experience changes in energy, lethargy, increased or decreased appetite, increased or decreased sleep which are also often experienced during depression.
4. Another significant contributor to depression includes reactionary factors. These include things such as environmental factors, stress, and major life changes that trigger depression. It’s not too difficult to fathom how deaths, job loss, financial strain, etc. contribute to depression, and when there are multiple significant stressors within a short period of time, the risk of depression increases significantly.
5. The first four listed contributors to depression are the most discussed in the literature. The fifth, yet perhaps least discussed, significant contributor to depression is spiritual. The truth is that the Bible cautions us, “For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood armies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 NLT). Christ came so that we could experience joy in great abundance, yet we also have a very real enemy who seeks to do everything he can to leave us joyless. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10 NIV).
Spiritual contributors to depression
In Scripture, the enemy is referred to as the father of lies, incapable of telling truth (John 8:44). When we succumb to the enemy’s influence, we often unconsciously agree with the very lies he feeds us, lies which do not align with God’s truth.
What I would like you to hear loud and clear is that you are not the primary cause of your depression and neither is your child. Neither are your genetics or your situations. The thoughts that lead to depression are not your thoughts. They are thoughts offered to you by the lying enemy that you have come into agreement with. The enemy aims to keep us in a state of bondage and despair, under a canopy of heaviness and oppression. Our enemy influences us primarily through our thoughts during vulnerable situations in our lives. Unintentionally, we allow the enemy access to interfere with our thoughts. A direct correlation exists between our thoughts and our physical and emotional wellbeing. Proverbs 23:7 reminds us, “for as he thinketh in his heart, so is he” (KJV).
As I explained above, I found in my many years in private practice that knowing the causes or contributors of depression in and of itself is not incredibly helpful, unless we use that information to make healthy choices to improve our health/mental health. Yet there are things we can do:
The first thing we need to do is to recognize we have an enemy. According to John 10:10, he steals, kills, and destroys whatever opposes his kingdom of darkness. It’s that enemy who seeks to steal our peace, kill our joy, and attempt to destroy our identity, all of which significantly contribute to our mental health. Recognizing our enemy is the first step toward victory.
The enemy, the Father of Lies, is constantly at work whispering lies and deception into our ear, hoping we will agree, and tear us down as we forget we are children of the Most High God.
Let’s consider for a moment, the loveable cartoon character, Charlie Brown. Charlie, in many ways, exemplifies our children who hear so many daily negative messages through their peers, teachers, coaches, and media as well as social media influences. He is constantly being told by others he’s a “Blockhead,” so often that he begins to believe that if others think that of him, it must be true. This leads to Charlie telling himself he is a “Serious Case of Inadequacy.” Just like normal children and teens, Charlie Brown determined that the “whole world seemed to be conspiring against me.” Charlie Brown listened to the negative voices and decided that he was an insecure, wishy-washy failure, before ultimately being willing to accept the possibility of seeing the true self which was that he was an honest, brave, compassionate, kind, good person.
If we are willing to take an honest look at the many voices bombarding our children on a daily basis, we can see how they begin to accept everyone else’s label for themselves. Such negative attributes and labels begins the downward spiral into a pit of depression. While our children may have been told the truth by us, their parents, depression often turns us into someone we no longer even recognize. Depression causes us to self-isolate out of shame, and contributes to significant feelings of loneliness. Perhaps the most devastating aspect of depression (and the enemy’s lies) is that depression causes us to focus on our feelings rather than the truth.
While God gives us our emotions, and they are not inherently bad, it’s important to recognize that our emotions are the outward manifestation of the thoughts we believe. So if our children hear messages like “you aren’t very smart,” or “you are weird,” or “no one likes you,” then they begin to feel insecure and unloved, and it sets the stage to feel depressed, inadequate, and unworthy.
We must be aware of the three primary tactics the enemy uses against us. According to John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” When it comes to depression, through his lies, the enemy strives to do three key things:
- He steals our joy.
- He kills our peace.
- He seeks to destroy our identity.
I talk about these in much greater depth in my award-winning book, Hope Prevails: Insights From a Doctor’s Personal Journey Through Depression and the Hope Prevails Bible Study.
It can be frightening at times to think of the power the enemy has to influence our lives. But we can take heart because the enemy doesn’t have never ending power. We need to know the limits God places on the enemy’s influence in and on our lives.
Think of the life of Job. Scripture tells us that God allowed the enemy to adversely impact Job’s life. The enemy took away all of Job’s livestock, all his servants, his home, his children, and finally his health. But in the book of Job, each time the enemy wanted to touch Job, God placed limits on what the enemy could do. In the end, God told the enemy that he could inflict Job with sores all over his body, but he could not kill him.
While the enemy loves for God’s children to live under the burden of depression, God still places limits on the extent of the enemy’s influence in our lives. There are 3 specific limits that God places on the enemy’s influence in and on our lives that I want to discuss today.
Despite the enemy’s influence in our lives, he does not have carte blanche to interfere.
1. The enemy doesn’t determine our worth
The worth or value of something is determined by the price we pay for something. The worth or value of our car, our home, or even a meal we order at a restaurant is determined by how much we are willing to pay for it.
Similarly, our worth is determined by the price someone would be willing to pay for us. Jesus Christ thought that we were so worthy that He was willing to pay the price of His life in order for us to have eternal life. No one before and no one since has ever paid the price of their life for my freedom, therefore, only Jesus can determine our worth, and He thought we were so worthy that we were to die for!
2. The enemy doesn’t determine our destiny
God offers us freedom and salvation through an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. When we accept Christ as our Savior, we are given the blessing of eternal life with Him. The enemy tempts us into worry, fear, anxiety, depression, discouragement and more with the lies he continually whispers in our ears, and then he shames us when we’ve fallen prey. But the truth is that we are imperfect people in need of a Savior. If we were perfect, we wouldn’t have needed Jesus to give His life on our behalf.
Our sin is what determines our need of a Savior. Yet the enemy wants us to believe that we are damaged goods and that succumbing to depression will keep us from going to Heaven. That is simply not true. If you (or your child) have given your life to Jesus Christ, your destiny is secure. There’s nothing the enemy can do about that. There are times that we fall away from walking in close relationship with God, but He’s always waiting for us to come back to Him. He’s never the one who walks away…we do. Just as in the parable of the prodigal son, God is always waiting with open arms for us to return to Him.
3. The enemy cannot separate us from the love of God!
When we struggle with depression, we often begin to believe the lies that we are unlovable and unworthy. Depression colors our perspective so much that we find it difficult to love ourselves, much less believe that we are loveable by others or God.
Yet, when we return to the truth of God’s word, He assures us:
a. He has loved us with an everlasting love and his kindness toward us never fails. “The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness” (Jeremiah 31:3 NIV).
b. NOTHING can separate us from the love of God—not even depression. “And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love” (Romans 8:38 NLT).
Once we recognize that we have a very real enemy who is largely responsible for bringing depression into our lives, and we understand the limits God places on the enemy’s influence in and on our lives, then we need to know how to combat the enemy’s lies with God’s truth.
How to Combat the Enemy’s Lies with God’s Truth
Scripture has said that we cannot serve two kingdoms at once. “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24 NIV).
The enemy is incapable of doing anything but lie, and his lies are so convincing at times, especially when his lies are incessant. The only way we can come out from under his influence is to know and stand on God’s truth.
This is exactly why God commands us in Scripture, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5 NIV).
As a neuropsychologist, I can tell you that we have somewhere between 50,000-70,000 thoughts a day. So taking every thought captive is a lot of work, but so worth it. Taking our thoughts captive brings physical, emotional, and spiritual freedom.
What does it look like to take every thought captive? For example, the enemy will say we are a failure, but God says that He who began a good work in us will see it through to completion (Philippians 1:6). Our days are numbered, and only God knows the number of days we will be given. Each day we wake up with breath, we continue to have purpose for God’s kingdom because He isn’t through with us yet. So, when we have the thought that “I’m a failure,” 1) we need to stop, 2) repent for listening and believing the enemy’s lies, 3) refuse to come into agreement with those lies, and 4) rebuke the enemy and agree with God’s truth.
When we struggle with depression, the enemy loves to taunt us with our weaknesses, to bring shame upon us and cause us to withdraw and isolate ourselves. Yet God’s Word says that it is when we are weak that HE is strong (2 Corinthians 12:10).
The enemy loves to remind us that we are sinners. Yet, God’s truth reminds us that we are forgiven and made righteous (Ephesians 1:7 and 2 Corinthians 5:21). Christ came so that we would be forgiven of our sins. In fact, God’s word says that in Him we are new creations, and that the old has passed away and the new is here (2 Corinthians 5:17).
The enemy first tempts us to sin, and then shames us and makes us feel guilty for giving in to the temptation he offered. Yet, the truth of God’s Word says that there is no condemnation for those of us who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).
The above include many of the lies the enemy tempts us to believe about ourselves, but you know as well as I do that there are limitless other examples of his perpetuated lies. The important thing is the we begin to recognize those lies for what we are, and that we learn what the truth of God’s word says, and that we believe that more than the enemy’s lies. Whether we are trying to prevent depression from getting a grip on our hearts and minds, or we are trying to fight back once fallen in a pit, the greatest prescription remains the same: we must learn the truth of God’s word and use it to refute those lies.
Helpful Resources on our identity in Christ
There are many other blog posts on my site about our identity in Christ. These truths are so important to teach our children, because if we don’t, the enemy will use others to teach our children lies.
- Who God Says You Are: 17 Scriptures About Our True Identity
- Remember Who You Are: 10 Scriptures to Remind You of Your True Identity
- Our Identity in Christ is Certain
- What Does It Mean To Be a Child of God?
There are also episodes of the Your Hope-Filled Perspective with Dr. Michelle Bengtson podcast related to this very topic that may encourage and educate you.
- Hope for Living in our True Identity in Christ – Episode 38
- How To Engage in Spiritual Warfare – Episode 97
If you’ve been reading these posts and have concern about yourself, a spouse, your child or your teen, please know there is hope. This information is provided to not only educate but also to equip you for battle. One of the most helpful things we can do to help equip our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health is to know God’s word (and teach our children God’s word) and trust God and His Word more than any other resource. Scripture reminds us that where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17). He wants that for you, and your children, and your children’s children.
In previous posts we discussed crucial information about understanding depression in children, depression in teens, and suicide risk in children and teens. Additional important information regarding depression can be found in my award-winning books Hope Prevails: Insights From a Doctor’s Personal Journey Through Depression and the Hope Prevails Bible Study.
Depression doesn’t have to become a permanent part of life.
There is hope.
Hope Prevails: Insights From a Doctor’s Personal Journey Through Depression and the companion Hope Prevails Bible Study help the reader understand how depression comes to be, recover their joy, reclaim their peace, and re-establish their true identity, while knowing their worth, remembering their secure destiny, and being confident that nothing separates them from God’s love.
Hope Prevails and the Hope Prevails Bible Study are must-reads for anyone suffering from depression or knows someone suffering from depression.
“As a counselor, I have read many books on depression, but I have never read a book that deals with the spiritual aspect of healing as thoroughly as does Hope Prevails. Dr. Bengtson draws from her own personal journey as well as her professional experience. I highly recommend this book for anyone who has tasted the pain of depression or knows a friend who is depressed.” ~ Gary Chapman, Ph.D., Author of The 5 Love Languages
This one nearly got by us with one of our sons. Thanks be to God, he talked to us and we were able to resolve the problem.
Michele, I’m so grateful your son knew he could come to you and talk to you. Thanks for sharing. It’s so hard when our kids think we won’t or don’t understand. Hoping this series will help other parents going through this with their child/teen.
Wow, what an amazing message. You have shared more insights, helps, knowledge of dealing with depression in teens and children than I have ever seen gathered in one place. Thank you for this comprehensive timely ,much needed information with your heart of love and compassion. You have truly given us something very profound to work with and I know so many parents will be blessed deeply through this message. Thank you, Dr. Michelle! YOU are a blessing!!
Karen, my prayer is that God will use posts like these, as if they were loaves and fish, and then he will break them and multiply them for those in need.