How an 11-year-old showing worrisome signs of depression found a path to happiness and social connectedness with a multi-pronged approach that included help from the Stern Center's social learning program.

Worry. It’s what parents do.

Once middle school hits, parents brace for a new rash of worry as the maelstrom of adolescence brews.

So, when Sarah* began to fret about her 11-year-old son’s moodiness last fall, she chalked it up to normal ‘tween hormones. As Kyle’s symptoms spiraled, a cloud of sadness and anxiety enveloped him. Sarah’s worry deepened as her son disengaged from others and seemed unable to enjoy any activities. Before long, midday calls from school personnel became routine: “Please pick up your son.” Perceived insults or infractions caused total meltdowns. When the slightest redirection or comment from a teacher set him off, no one could reach him. “Everything felt impossible for Kyle,” his mother recalled.

Fearing a mental health crisis, Sarah wasted no time seeking help, and today he is a different child thanks to a multi-pronged approach that included support at school from his guidance counselor, instruction at the Stern Center, intervention at the Howard Center, and therapy. At the Stern Center, he participated in individual sessions with a speech-language pathologist and joined a small group of peers to hone his social communication skills.

Within a few weeks, Sarah noticed an uptick in his mood, behavior and communication skills. Kyle began using some of the vocabulary he learned from his speech-language pathologist, who specialized in teaching social communication. When Kyle began using phrases like, “How big is my problem?” and could rate his feelings using “The Incredible 5-Point Scale,” his mom knew he was on the recovery path.  “After only a few weeks Kyle had improved his ability to put problems in perspective and manage unexpected situations,” she said.

Proof that Kyle had turned the corner came on a July weekend at a tiny seaside community north of Boston. After a morning of romping in the surf and half-burying his little brother in sand, Kyle decided to take a break on the boardwalk. Out of earshot yet within sight of his mom, Kyle settled in to read on a bench, but it wasn’t long before a group of friendly, local retirees ambled over to their usual spot to solve the world’s problems and drink coffee. After a few minutes, his mother thought she saw Kyle bantering with the “boardwalk bench guys.” Was Kyle making friends with perfect strangers? From a distance, his mother could see the group enjoying lively conversation, but she couldn’t be sure. Soon enough, one of the bench guys assured Sarah that Kyle was regaling them with stories about life in Vermont, his friends, and his favorite activities.

Everybody loved Kyle.

“Six months ago,” Sarah said, “Kyle would have ignored them or simply walked away as soon as anyone tried speaking to him. Now he’s confident enough to interact with people and have fun.”

For Sarah, the best part of his recovery was simple: the son she lost was back. He is learning how to keep his problems in perspective and communicate his feelings to others when he needs to—skills he’ll need to ride out the storm of adolescence.

“He’s ready to start middle school soon and is looking forward to it. He is hopeful and excited for the start of the school year.”

Knowing that Kyle has a survival kit, perhaps his mom will worry a bit less.

* The names in this story have been changed.

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