Why My Child Is Sad—And Why He Isn’t

28 Aug

Why My Child Is SadYou may relate to the food allergy piece of this—or the part about a child with special needs. Maybe you understand the mental health bit. Perhaps you struggle yourself. This is just one tiny scenario in our family’s journey. It may seem trivial, and when looked through the lens of one small moment, perhaps it is, but the message drawn from it is hugely significant and important. We all struggle with assumptions and forcing our good intentions, as well being misunderstood. It’s universal.

Today, one tired, squeaky, sometimes defeated little voice comes through in my experience. I believe his voice rings out, joining many others along similar paths. Little Man and I want you to know:

You are not alone.


As she bent over to adjust the blood pressure sleeve, she asked him three times:

“Are you looking forward to school starting?”

She had to ask him three times because the first two times he looked down and wouldn’t answer. She had the best of intentions. She wanted to make my son comfortable.

I know the “goal” here is to have a 9 year old make eye contact, smile, act engaged in and enthralled by conversation with an adult, and respond appropriately with all polite words tacked on.

On his best days, he’s charismatic and very articulate.

I’m well out of range of the goal line right now, however. I really am.

Number One: He’s in a doctor’s office. Know any kid under 12 who likes those?

Number Two: It’s an allergist, with which he has a long history (since age 5 months, actually). Yeah, allergists do scratch tests, poke needles, take blood, and if you’re asthmatic as well, which he is, express micro-details of worry about any change in your lungs. I know it’s their job, and I’m very grateful for the amazing medical care in the Boston metro area where I live, but if you’re 9 and you’ve had paramedics surrounding you frequently enough in your early life, have seen your mother run in panic for Benadryl or the epi pen, and have ridden even once in an ambulance as the patient, um, yeah, you’re not the favorite face for my son to see. It’s not personal.

Let’s take away Numbers One and Two, for a second, just because those are common enough to many children in an allergist’s office.

Number Three: You asked him if he was excited about school. You have every right to do that. It’s that time of year. I catch myself asking other children if they’re looking forward to a new year. I am also guilty of this. But did you hear his response when he finally grabbed the words forming in his brain, carefully wrapped his lips around them, tentatively looked into your eyes, and nervously whispered them out?

Did you hear those exasperated, weighted words?

“No, not really.”

You see, for my son, learning is an anxiety producer. He’s incredibly astute, but he has some disorders getting in the way. School isn’t a place he wants to think about right now. You didn’t know that, and that’s perfectly okay, but please stop when you hear his answer. Please. Just. Stop.

Number Four: My child is just sad sometimes. He vacillates between anxiety and depressive episodes. If you could see him when he is unencumbered by the heavy cobwebs of a spinning mind and worried heart, you’d see jovial and fun. You’d hear fart jokes and lighthearted teasing. You’d see him suck life in with everything he has and give back such happiness in his thoughtful statements, quick wit, and tender heart.

Today, though, he wouldn’t look up. You tried several times, and that was so sweet of you. You didn’t know your comments about how tall he was for his grade caused angst because he still identifies himself with an extra year of school. You didn’t know you asked him, in just a few questions, about every worry trigger he carries around in his little heart:

  • Do I weigh enough? I can see my ribs.
  • Do I need more tests for my lungs?
  • Will she poke me for allergies?
  • Why is everyone talking about school like it’s a good thing? Something to be excited about?

It’s not that I expect you to know this. You couldn’t possibly know how I know each statement that you made today ripped at a piece of him and restarted a concern I bat down every day with all of my own Mama Strength—along with supplements, sensory tools, exercise, talking it through, and various therapies.

How could you possibly know? None of this is your fault or your responsibility. Each patient is different, and he’s not your son. After all, I brought him to a medical office, and these are the items typically discussed. I understand that.

I also appreciate how you tried, oh you certainly tried!, to engage him positively. Bless you for the effort!

I wish, though, that you had noticed the “anxiety disorder” piece on the sheet. I made a point to have that on there. It helps so much to know how to approach a child. It’s not easy for me to speak up and ask that to be added. Not easy at all—especially not in front of him, which is where it usually has to happen since he’s the patient, and I’m just the tagalong vocal advocate parent. I did it because I truly believe that the right hand needs to know what the left hand is doing, and that is so true between behavioral health and internal medicine. So far I haven’t found it not to be true in his case, which is years long, by the way.

Maybe it wouldn’t have been so important to talk him into a happy smile if you had read that part.

I did not write this today to “straighten out” people who don’t understand my child or take an unhelpful approach.

I wrote this for other parents like me and for children like my son. You’re not alone, and I know your pain, weariness, and frustration. I know how you simultaneously are so grateful for kind folks who express care and want to talk with your child and yet hold your breath, feeling it crackle, while they determine to win that unachievable smile from your child.

I wrote this to inform, spread a little understanding, bless what is done well, and fine-tune what could use more grace.

Today, we received kindness, but we needed more grace. He needed to be let off the hook from all the inquiries and forced dialogue. He needed his body language to be read and his silence and hesitancy respected.

I write this for every well-meaning, kind-hearted doctor’s office nurse, stranger in the grocery store, or other parent on the playground, for that matter.

I’d like to clear up some common assumptions people make when they see my son downcast and approach us. To be fair, these are not always overtly stated. If you’ve read this far, thank you:

  • My child is not sad and does not look down at his feet, avoiding your gaze, because he is abused at home.
  • He does not fear adults.
  • He is not able to be cheered up or out of this at the moment.
  • Nobody died.
  • He’s not lonely or neglected.
  • He does not lack loving parents and siblings.
  • We did not have an argument.
  • He does not dislike you.
  • I did not discipline him before we saw you.
  • He’s not an ungrateful brat. He has moments of poor behavior, like any child, but he isn’t being belligerent when you speak to him.
  • I did not fail as a parent to teach him manners. He simply can’t perform the way you want him to right now. He just can’t.
  • Kind comments won’t take the pain on his face away; it might ease him, and he might feel encouraged by you, but right now, you cannot make his facial expression change, and that’s okay.

And this last one is really important:

  • I’m not unaware that my child is sad. It’s minute-by-minute on my mind. Unless you are a close family member or friend, letting me know he looks sad doesn’t bring me revelation. It delivers fresh pain. Asking me why can’t be answered in one simple sentence. How much time do you have?

I don’t pretend to have a handle on this whole mental wellness walk we’re on. The path winds and shoots out in all directions some days, and on a higher-functioning day, this whole scene may not have happened. Or maybe it wouldn’t have bothered me.

All I know is that Little Man taught me so much today—and every day, really. Not everyone will understand us. That’s true of life in so many ways. I have days when I long to make him smile too. I have days when I don’t stop when I should at: “How was school?” or “Did you eat your whole lunch?”

We can’t walk on eggshells. Bumping into people who don’t always understand us can be very valuable. We have to learn loving ways to respond.

So I end with this:

Today, in that doctor’s office, I was proud of my son for being politely honest when the nurse kept prodding him about school and his life in general. He’s depressed. Saying he is otherwise just to ease someone else is dishonest, and I value honesty. It’s a rare gem out there in the world of interactions.

We can’t all be sensitive to knowing everybody’s pain or issues out there, but we can try to listen when we get a response. We can also try to gauge when we’re not being received well; sometimes we cause pressure when that’s not at all our intention.

Little Man, today I write for you and all those out there like you. You inspire me every day. The world is a better place with you in it, even on the sad days. We have so much to learn from you. I hope I forever listen, Buddy. All my love, Mom

*This blog has been shared at any link highlighted here: Mom 2 Mom Monday Link-Up, Make a Difference Mondays, Pick Your Pin TuesdayWomen With Intention WednesdaysGrace & Truth, A Little R & R, RaRa Link-Up, Me, Coffee & JesusDance With Jesus, Blessing Counters, Coffee & Conversation, Saturday Soiree, Tell His Story, Find Stability, So Much at Home, Faith-Filled FridaysReflect His Love and Glory Link-Up, Bonbon & Coffee Linkupand Christian Mommy Blogger.

More of my personal story of uncovering my child’s special needs can be found in Not Just on Sundays: Seeking God’s Purpose in Each New Day (includes Book Club Discussion Questions).


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27 responses to “Why My Child Is Sad—And Why He Isn’t

  1. Coupon Diva (@RealCouponDiva)

    August 28, 2015 at 3:41 pm

    Bravo to you for being so strong and outspoken about it! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bonnie Lyn Smith

      August 28, 2015 at 7:22 pm

      Thanks, Coupon Diva! I worried about it being too outspoken, but my goal is to get below the surface and help people understand. Thanks for coming by!


  2. Deb Little

    August 28, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    What a journey you all are on! This was really informative. I’m trying to tuck all this info away for future use! I know I’m guilty of this type of interaction with child. “If they don’t answer, just ask again.” Wrong! Thank you for being such an advocate for Little Man & all the children out there like him!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bonnie Lyn Smith

      August 28, 2015 at 7:24 pm

      Thanks, Deb. Once in a while I write a piece with a little more “edge,” and I really worry about how much of an edge to leave on there, but mental health is something I’m so passionate about. I want to help more people understand…especially when it comes to children still learning to find their voices. I make so many mistakes with others and also as the parent. I will never learn enough, but I’m willing to keep trying for Little Man and those like him. Thanks so much for being so supportive! I really appreciate it!


  3. elizabeth959803

    August 28, 2015 at 10:52 pm

    Oh my goodness, how much do I love this piece? As someone who has lived under the cloud of depression all my life, I am always on the lookout for it in my children. Too, there is the fact that my younger daughter is just a complex, complicated, fascinating, deep-thinking, deep-feeling, melancholy personality, and if she doesn’t “feel” happy, she usually doesn’t put on the act. And I don’t want her to…at least not all the time! Finding and walking the line between accepting and celebrating who she is in her own unique nature and gently guiding her toward who she can be in the power of God is a constant challenge. Thank you for this loving and lovely and instructive post, Bonnie!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bonnie Lyn Smith

      August 29, 2015 at 11:17 am

      Oh, Elizabeth….thank you for such encouragement. I have walked a few depression seasons myself. No fun. It’s especially hard to see it in my young child. If I could physically beat it with a stick, I would! It’s so wonderful to hear how you are guiding your daughter and allowing her those moments to figure it out, to not “have to be happy.” I’m a melancholy. I can relate to how you describe your daughter. Glad we’ve connected! Thank you so much for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Tabitha Wells

    August 28, 2015 at 10:54 pm

    This post brought tears to my eyes. What a beautiful little boy – to be able to grasp that at 9, to be able to take that in stride despite everything, is impressive.

    Listening to some of the things you are talking about from the perspective of a parent, I can practically imagine my mother going through and saying the same things when we were going through everything with me. Of course, I was 23, but still – it can be so difficult for the parent, or the spouse, or the siblings in these situations, and it takes a great deal of love, grace and strength. Those were things I couldn’t necessarily see at the time, being the root of the issue – but it continues to warm my heart when I see others stepping up to play that supportive role, and to learn to understand. Part of breaking the stigma is shattering it one family at a time; one step forward with each person.

    I think this post does a good job of highlighting some of the stigmas around depression, particularly in children.


    Liked by 1 person

  5. Bonnie Lyn Smith

    August 29, 2015 at 11:19 am

    Tabitha….thank you so much for sharing part of your story. It helps me and brings me strength. You are so right that it’s about educating, learning, and shattering the stigma. That is my heartbeat, for sure. Thank you for such encouraging and helpful feedback. It means a lot to me! I really appreciate you taking the time. Blessings!


  6. Christine Carter

    August 30, 2015 at 12:00 am

    Oh my heart… such an incredible post my friend. You have such a gift of sharing hard truths and valuable insights while also offering direction and gracious feedback to those who are surely unaware of such things. This broke my heart into pieces, just picturing your precious Little Man and all he has to struggle with in his life, his mind, his heart. It’s clear to me why God chose you to be his mom, in the way you express your love and devotion to your boy. THAT fills me with so much hope, and I’m deeply touched by how tuned in to his needs you are, and how you acknowledge every last one of them…

    Little Man deserves a mama like you. YOU are amazing. God bless you, my dear friend. May He continue to sustain you through this season of parenting, and may you feel His Presence in every courageous step you take in caring for your son. I will keep praying for you both!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bonnie Lyn Smith

      August 30, 2015 at 9:59 pm

      Chrissy, Dearheart, I love you so! Thank you for being among the “first responders” to let me know how this sat with you. It was painful to write and very vulnerable to post. I always worry somehow in it I am being unfair to someone. I really appreciate the incredible encouragement of my parenting. I needed to hear that because sometimes nothing feels like enough. Thank you for all the love you continue to pour out to us. I am breathing it in deeply because I know the Father sent it! xoxo


  7. Kelsie

    August 30, 2015 at 9:12 pm

    As a teacher, it’s definitely great for me to read this. Great perspective and some really good points that make us all think. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bonnie Lyn Smith

      August 30, 2015 at 9:51 pm

      Kelsie, it’s teachers like you even being willing to read it that make a difference. He has had some really great teachers who were willing to read our perspective and learn more about him. It helped so much. As a parent, I felt so reassured when teachers opened communication and were willing to keep it open. Bless you in your profession and the many lives you surely touch!


  8. qwietpleez

    August 30, 2015 at 9:15 pm

    So wonderfully worded . . . As a parent of two young men with autism and another with an anxiety disorder, this hit so close to my heart. It’s hard to watch the struggles they face, I’ve felt my heart shatter in the face of them so many times. I’ve also watch my boys grow and find strength I never imagined over the years. They are men now, my heroes 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bonnie Lyn Smith

      August 30, 2015 at 9:49 pm

      Thank you so much, qwietpleez! I really appreciate you sharing your own journey with me. I draw strength from hearing (reading) you talk about your sons. It is so nice that you offered me a glimpse of the future, which is so hard to imagine when they are still young. Blessings to you, and thank you so much for coming by!


  9. Nannette and the Sweetheart

    August 30, 2015 at 9:16 pm

    Such a great post. So glad I visited from Me, Coffee and Jesus! You gave us so much good information and insight. Thank you and may I remember your words. ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bonnie Lyn Smith

      August 30, 2015 at 9:29 pm

      Thank you, Nannette! I just tried to leave a comment twice on your blog with your exciting news but I had a lot of trouble with it. Hope it shows up. 🙂 Thank you for coming by Espressos of Faith!


      • Nannette and The Sweetheart

        August 31, 2015 at 7:55 am

        That is because I have that silly moderator on for first time commenters 😦 I will remove that today, my apologies. So happy to have you stop by. ♥

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Sharon

    September 1, 2015 at 5:15 pm

    All I can really say is “I get it.” Having struggled all my life with depression and anxiety issues, I can well relate to the dilemma of people who try hard to “help” me or “cheer” me up. I know their hearts are in the right place, but sometimes their ministrations just make things worse. I can’t tell you the times I’ve been told to snap out of it, or to just relax, or there’s nothing to worry about, etc. As if I wouldn’t do those things if I could.

    I think your young son is a very brave soul. And a gracious one, too. And I applaud him for his courage amidst a difficult journey. Please tell him that he’s not alone. Of course, he has Jesus, who understands every thought and feeling. But, he also has a host of people like me who really know what it feels like to be sad and scared a lot of the time.

    To him I would just say this: “Life is hard, but God is bigger.”


    Liked by 1 person

    • Bonnie Lyn Smith

      September 4, 2015 at 6:04 pm

      Sharon, I so appreciate your visits and your comments! It’s been a hard summer over here, and when I see you pop on, I read your comments over and over again! LOVE your advice for my son. I do appreciate so much the folks who “get it” and are willing to share their journey. Thank you for offering that. I’ve been through depression bouts myself. It’s a hard road, but He is faithful. Blessings to you! Forgive me for the delay in responding. School buses rolled in again this week.


  11. tattoomamaofthree

    September 4, 2015 at 6:57 pm

    I totally get this. My youngest has Autism and CP. You worded this is such a wonderful way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bonnie Lyn Smith

      September 4, 2015 at 7:03 pm

      Thank you, tattoomamaofthree! I really appreciate your encouragement. This post was a very raw one to write. Thank you so much for coming by!


  12. Karen Del Tatto

    February 3, 2016 at 12:15 pm

    Thank you for sharing your son’s story with such transparency and humility.

    I know it will be an encouragement to many others out there who have been in similar situations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bonnie Lyn Smith

      October 11, 2017 at 9:08 am

      Thanks, Karen….I’m sorry my original reply didn’t go through a year and a half ago. I really appreciate your comments. They mean a lot to me. Blessings!


  13. Kori

    October 4, 2017 at 9:11 pm

    Excellent post!! My nine year old daughter has some anxiety with school as well. It can be so difficult at times. I find comfort in knowing that we are not walking through this alone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bonnie Lyn Smith

      October 11, 2017 at 9:04 am

      Thanks, Kori! I’m so sorry about the anxiety. We found 7, 8, 9 to be difficult ages for that, and now as we approach 12 (he is now close to 12), things are a bit more stable. But those years of getting him out the door to school were heartbreaking.



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