Care and Feeding

Should I Intervene With a Kid Who Says He Is Depressed?

My kid’s friend has always had behavior issues, but now he says he’s drinking alcohol to deal with sadness. Is it time to say something?

Sad tween boy sitting with his head in his arms.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 11-year-old son has been friends with “Paul” for more than two years. During that time, Paul has been suspended from school multiple times for his language (he drops the F-bomb constantly, has called his teacher the B-word, etc.) and disruptive behavior. He’s known to deliver very colorful commentary on how he sees the world, shouting out some particularly interesting bits at times. Nevertheless, Paul is a smart and sensitive kid, and I am rooting for him. We all are.

The reason I’m writing is because Paul recently told my son that he sneaks and drinks his mother’s vodka when he’s feeling depressed, which is “most of the time,” in his words. He has mentioned those feelings before, and I’m also aware that telling tall tales is part of his swagger. For the most part, we take them in stride, but the combination of the alleged drinking and depression made me pause. I’m honestly not sure if Paul is just trying to look cool or if he’s trying to ask for help.

My plan, which I shared with my son, is to wait and see if Paul ever talks to me about these issues, and to then talk to a grown-up who has some oversight in his life, i.e., the school principal or his teacher. I wonder if I’m doing enough or if I should do more, though I’m not even sure what that would entail, as a conversation with his parents seems impossible—they are not at all approachable. Am I just sticking my nose in where it doesn’t belong? Your thoughts are appreciated.

—All Eyes on Paul

Dear AEoP,

Beloved: To be doing “enough” would require doing something. Right now, you aren’t doing anything but waiting for a kid who is not your own to come to you with information that could lead you to take potentially life-altering actions—which may inadvertently be sending a message to your own son regarding how you respond when he confides in you. Did he share Paul’s big reveal offhandedly over dinner in another installment of “My Crazy Homeboy”? Did he swear you to secrecy? Or did he come to you asking for direction or support?

If the news of the past two decades has taught us anything, it should make it plain that troubled boys should not be left to figure out their inner turmoil on their own. Regardless of whether Paul is deeply depressed or playing up some manageable feelings of sadness to sound cool and edgy (not a ridiculous proposition at all, considering the steady stream of references to depression and substance abuse in popular music and teen-focused dramas), or how true his claims of regular drinking may be, you have been provided with information that necessitates action—especially considering that this kid is having trouble at school and has these allegedly “unapproachable” parents.

Speaking of, what exactly makes these two seem so difficult to engage? Are they snobbish unapproachable, or too-busy-yelling-at-each-other-in-the-school-parking-lot-to-meet-the-other-parents unapproachable? Because there’s a huge difference there. If Paul’s peeps just lack the warmth and charm you’d usually seek out before befriending someone, then remember: You aren’t trying to become friends. You may, however, be trying to save their son’s life. What sort of relationship do you have to them? Does Paul spend time at your home? In your care? If so, have you ever seen any signs that he may have been drinking? Are there any signs that his home life is out of order somehow?

If there are signs that Paul’s family is somehow toxic, that he’s in the care of people who are abusive toward him and/or one another, then your anxiety may be valid, but your duty to advocate for this child is even more urgent. Either way, you should start the conversation with a school authority whom you feel will take your concerns seriously—a principal, guidance counselor, or teacher—and share both your son’s reveal and your observations about Paul ASAP. Do not tell your son this in advance, as he may panic and tell his buddy.

Let the school officials know that maintaining the relationship between the boys is important to you, as Paul may not have that many people to confide in and you’d like to try to handle this in a way that does not destroy their connection. I’d love to tell you to just chat Paul up over a cup of hot chocolate and see what you can find out before you escalate the situation, but he’s 11. You can’t trust that he’ll feel safe being truthful with you, especially if you haven’t established a close bond of your own with him.

Time is ticking away. This kid could be in real danger, even if he’s never had so much as a taste of hooch. Please step up and do something, seriously. I’m so sorry that you, your son, and especially Paul are going through this, and I hope that you’ll be able to find the strength to advocate for a young man whom a lot of folks would gladly ignore … until it was too late.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Do you have advice for persistent, specific nightmares plaguing a 6½-year-old? My son has a recurring nightmare about zombies, and based on his descriptions, it sounds like he’s very cognizant of what happens in them. He isn’t just claiming nightmares—he can tell you exactly what happens, and he says he can’t make himself wake up. He also cries at night because he doesn’t want to go to sleep and have nightmares. Things like “Nightmare Spray” don’t work because they don’t actually make them stop, which he knows.

I was thinking, maybe he could go to sleep to a children’s podcast to get other ideas in his head than zombies. Any other suggestions?

—Shook Son

Dear SS,

The children’s podcast is a great idea—and there are many of them to choose from. Just be mindful not to pick something too exciting or stimulating that may trigger some new, overly vivid, possibly terrifying dreams to replace the zombies. You can also try meditation and music apps that are designed to put little people peacefully to sleep. Also consider getting a night light that gives the little dude something pretty to look at before he closes his eyes.

How did the zombies make their way into his mind in the first place? It may be the case that some of the content he’s been exposed to on TV or a tablet may be a bit too much for him. For now, try to limit the scary monsters and creepy crawlies and find some shows, books, and movies that avoid frightening characters and concepts.

Before putting on the podcast or ambient noise that will be the soundtrack to falling asleep, read your son a short book that has the sort of premise that would make for pleasant thoughts, or engage him in an imaginative conversation about what he’d like to dream about. It has been my experience that when I take the time to concentrate my thoughts on Michael B. Jordan or one of my other future boyfriends just before I conk out, I have dreams that are either similar to my fantasy or equally pleasant. Maybe he’d enjoy thinking about building the tallest Lego tower ever or becoming the fastest runner on the planet. Hope these ideas help! (And if you Google yourself: Hi, MBJ! I love you and I’m good with kids. DM me.)

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I was raised in a family that didn’t have any restrictions or boundaries around food. My parents never tried to control what and how much I ate, nor did they pressure me into eating certain things. Food and snacks were available whenever I wanted, and I didn’t have to eat if I wasn’t hungry. My mom never commented on my body, except with the occasional compliment, and I never internalized that the way I looked had anything to do with her overall love and affection for me. Overall, I grew up having a pretty uncomplicated relationship with food, and I really do appreciate their parenting style so much in that regard.

On the other hand, I think I was a little too unguided, and reaped some unpleasant consequences as a result. I dealt with a lot of fatigue and some depression as a kid and preteen, and I think these things were at least exacerbated by not eating well, if they were not a direct result of it. I was in my late teens and early 20s before I started to realize how much eating like crap affected how I felt, both physically and mentally. I don’t really remember drinking much water as a kid, for example—I mostly went for soda. And I didn’t choose a lot of fresh produce when there were chips and other more palatable starches as options.

Fast forward to now. I’m a mom to a wonderful 11-month-old little girl who currently loves eating everything. (I’ve been warned by friends with older kids that this will likely change, so I don’t expect her to always love broccoli.) I want her to have a healthy, enjoyable relationship with food, including occasional junk, but I also want to teach nutritional habits to my child that are better than the ones I had, because I want her to be as healthy and happy as possible. I don’t know how to best approach this, though, and I’m terrified to screw it up and send the wrong messaging. I have so many friends who have dealt with body-image and eating disorders, and several of them have attributed the start of their issues to their parents’ policing of what they ate. I never want to send the message to my daughter that I need her to look a certain way to make me happy or be anything other than exactly who she wants to be. But I do want her to be empowered to make healthier choices than the ones I made. Do you have any resources or suggestions on how to best navigate this?

—Don’t Want to Be a Food Critic

Dear DWtBaFC,

While challenges with self-image and consumption do sometimes stem from parents’ attempts to monitor their kids’ food or weight, they can also be found in folks who were raised to have healthy habits and encouraged to love themselves at any size. There’s nothing you can do that is 100 percent guaranteed to prevent your daughter from having a body dysmorphic disorder, being over or under what would be considered a healthy weight, or dealing with other issues related to food and physicality. Don’t cause yourself any unnecessary anxiety or stress for fear of causing anxiety and stress in her—it may just have the exact effect you’re hoping to avoid.

What you can do: Mirror the best of what your family did (refusing to engage in body shaming or enforce strict limits over what you were allowed to eat, and making you feel good about how you looked) while taking a more proactive approach to equipping your own child with better eating and drinking habits. Instead of focusing on how unhealthy food or drinks like soda can affect her looks, explain to her how those things will make her feel.

Attempt to present her with balanced plates more often than not (i.e., proteins, grains, dairy products, veggies and/or fruits, according to the sort of diet you’d like for her to adopt) and expose her to a variety of different options from each food group so that she doesn’t get stuck feeling like she “only” likes chicken nuggets or cheese sticks. Also, be prepared for the possibility that, well, she may only like chicken nuggets and cheese sticks for a period of time.

Keep an abundant selection of good-for-you items in your pantry, and, as she gets old enough to grab a bite without assistance, continue to explain and model what reasonable quantities should look like. Emphasize the importance of eating for hunger, not out of boredom or to satiate emotional needs. Don’t eschew celebratory foods altogether (i.e., a special treat to mark a potty-training milestone, birthday cupcakes, getting to eat at a favorite pizza place after displaying good behavior on a shopping trip), but also steer clear of defaulting to food as a reward too often.

Model healthy habits, talk about good food choices, and encourage her to see herself as beautiful and worthy no matter what the scale or classmates have to say. Incorporate physical activity into both of your routines as best as you can. Constantly provide affirmation, affirmation, affirmation. Society has made girls’ and women’s bodies the site of warfare for entirely too long; the best we can do for our daughters is to try to make them places of peace instead.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 8-year-old third grader hates school. Hates it. I don’t understand, because I was always one of those weird kids who loved going to school and couldn’t wait for a new academic year to start. Mornings are always a struggle because I know he’s going to be grumpy and beg me to stay home—I’ve never given in to this, so I don’t understand why he still tries every morning.

Today, he sat down at the bus stop, told me he wasn’t going, and cried. He got on the bus when it came, but he was grumpy and mad. From what he’s said, he likes his teacher. This has been a problem for the past two school years in two different locations (we moved, and he transferred schools between first and second grade), so I don’t think it’s a bully problem, teacher issues, or the school. But it can’t just be my kid, right? I hate to send him to school in a bad mood, and it certainly makes my mornings hard too. Help!

—What’s the Fuss?

Dear WtF?

I hated going to school for most of my academic career. In fact, I hated going to school so much that I even hated going when I loved being there. I’ve spent years wondering just why that was and why that loathing of school is so common. Here’s what I’ve come to understand:

1) A lot of schools really do suck—across socio-economic and geographical lines, regardless of the makeup of the student population … they suck.

2) “School sucks” is Americana: It’s a pop culture institution at this point. So much so that many young people feel compelled to behave as if they hate going, even if they don’t actually feel that way.

I’ll hope the former isn’t the case for you, since most first graders haven’t experienced enough anti-school propaganda to be influenced by it. Which leads us to my final observation:

3) Even many good or great schools are unable and/or unwilling to adequately teach to the learning styles, identities, and emotional needs that can be found among young people.

It’s possible that your son isn’t comfortable with what I am assuming is a traditional classroom model and may be finding himself bored, anxious, lonely, or otherwise aggrieved while sitting through his daily lessons. Have you asked him just what it is that he hates about school? Are there parts of the day that bother him more than others, or are there any that he truly enjoys?

Also, what is his schedule like? A very early wake-up time can put a damper on a kid’s will to get up and start a new day, especially if it’s not coupled with an early bedtime.

Spend some time talking to your son and find out what you can about what he is feeling. If school hasn’t started yet, you can make time to meet with his teacher and find out just what the coming year has to offer and explore what, if anything, can be done to make his current school a more pleasant environment for him. If your child has already begun, be sure to speak to him about specific issues or feelings about the class he’s in now, and then have that conversation with the teacher. It may be worth considering ways to find a different type of institution for him (i.e., a Montessori school, changing from private to public or vice versa), but first, work on establishing what the issue truly is and attempt to address it before making a drastic change. Best of luck!

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