What are you teaching your child about admitting vulnerability? Or what to do with uncomfortable feelings that they don’t want, but have nonetheless? Or how to express hurt or pain? Or what depression is?

Depression in kids is on the rise; whether it’s because of the well-documented link between time spent alone on their ever-present phones, because of the pandemic, because they feel inferior to the highlight reels of their peers lives on TikTok or Instagram, or because of how quickly vicious rumors can get around via texting.

Children are simply getting more depressed.

Parents are told to look for the classic signs of depression in their kids- symptoms such as depressed mood, not enjoying things that you’ve previously enjoyed, foggy thinking, a tendency to isolate, sleep and appetite changes, maybe even a sense of hopelessness or helplessness. But this isn’t the whole story.

Perfectly hidden depression…

Depression doesn’t always look like the commercials on TV. Because some very dangerously depressed kids look as if their lives are perfect.

And they don’t know how to talk about what’s really going on.

Maybe we tell these perfect-looking kids to relax. Chill. Take it easy. While at the same time, the expectations haven’t changed. And no one is talking about vulnerability. Parents haven’t modeled that it’s okay to admit feeling overwhelmed — to talk about the discrepancy that can exist between what life looks like, and what it feels to be living it. Kids can even feel blamed – that now they’re supposed to not look as if things are rough.

So they keep hiding. And grow more lonely and despairing.

Fighting against the perfectionistic standard…

There are some college kids who are fighting back. They’re putting a name to a fake persona that they’re beginning to refuse to live up to, because it’s killing them to do so. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students. So they’re leading the way at some of the finest colleges in the US.

Have you heard of the Stanford Duck Syndrome? Caroline Beaton, in this Gen-Y Psychology Today column, quotes a Stanford blogger on the syndrome. “One Stanford blogger explained, “Everyone on campus appears to be gliding effortlessly across this Lake College. But below the surface, our little duck feet are paddling furiously, working our feathered little tails off.” For Stanford students, the duck syndrome represents a false ease and fronted genius. “Frustration, anxiety, self-doubt, effort, and failure don’t have a place in the Stanford experience.”

Where did, “We learn from our mistakes” go?

How about the Penn face? Kids who go to Penn are warning others to stay away from the hypocrisy of putting on a smile and trying to look like everything’s going smoothly, when in reality, it’s very difficult.

Yet there are still some who don’t seem to get that a perfect-looking life for a child can mask depression.

Recently I heard a psychiatrist answer questions about what parents should do if they suspect their child is depressed.The interview was showcasing the recent book, “What Made Maddy Run” by Kate Fagan, a story of one young female Penn track star who jumped to her own death. Her parents agreed to the book in order to help others through their own tragedy.

He once again paraded the classic symptoms of depression — isolating, sleeping too much or not at all, wanting to drop out of things. By then, I was yelling at the TV, because this didn’t describe Maddie Holleran. Certainly at times she complained about not enjoying track anymore, about how much she wasn’t enjoying being at Penn. But she didn’t look consistently depressed; she put on a great face when taking a selfie, or FaceTiming with friends. Maddie Holleran didn’t tell anyone that she was planning her own death, but she was. She was perfectly hiding her depression.

What do our kids need?

What our kids need is for us to look beneath the surface. To model talking about our own struggles and vulnerability. To not spend our own lives chasing after a life that looks perfect.

And the frightening thing? You still might miss it.

Because depression and despair can be hidden far too well. No matter what your age.

I’ve counseled too many people over the years who are reeling, just like the Hollerans, from an apparently sudden suicide of a loved one. The guilt and horror are palpable in the room. Secrets were kept — the actual intensity of whatever was troubling them either never revealed, or only alluded to in a way where a family can rack it up to age-appropriate struggles, or “going through a bad time.”

The best thing you can do is to know the signs – not only of classic depression but also of perfectly hidden depression.



You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!

My new book entitled Perfectly Hidden Depression has arrived and you can order here! Its message is specifically for those with a struggle with strong perfectionism which acts to mask underlying emotional pain. But the many self-help techniques described can be used by everyone who chooses to begin to address emotions long hidden away that are clouding and sabotaging your current life.

And there’s a new way to send me a message! You can record by clicking below and ask your question or make a comment. You’ll have 90 seconds to do so and that time goes quickly. By recording, you’re giving SelfWork (and me) permission to use your voice on the podcast. I’ll look forward to hearing from you!

Originally published on November 18, 2017; updated and republished on May 21, 2022.

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