Talking to your child about depression is the first, and often most difficult step, to help them. The prevalence of childhood depression is alarming. According to research led by Jane Costello, a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke, the prevalence of depression is estimated to be 2.8 % in children younger than 13 years. It raises to 5.6 % in adolescents 13 to 18 years of age. At the same time, a WHO report found that Major Depressive Disorder is the highest cause of disability among adolescents aged 10 to 19. Worryingly suicide is the third leading cause of death in this age group.
Despite these alarming numbers, this issue isn’t talked about enough. We know we should act as role models to our children. We talk openly about physical ailments, but do we talk about our mental health issues with them? Not for support when they occur, but rather to show they are not uncommon or to be embarrassed about. Do we talk about Grandma’s bad hip but not why Grandpa is not as bubbly at the moment? The way people with mental illness are portrayed in movies and shows contributes to the stigma. Educating and talking to children about depression and mental illness generally is the first step parents can take in destigmatizing the topic. Talking about it at an early stage rather than putting it off until necessary removes much of the stigma. There is a misconception that talking about things to children makes them more likely to happen. In the same way, this isn’t the case with alcohol, so it is with mental illness.
Causes of Depression in Children and Teens
A single factor can cause depression, but that is rarely the case. It can be linked to a series of situations, meaning it is impossible to assign a cause, however tempting it might be. Below are some causes of depression in children and teens. Some are due to loss of self-respect due to factors such as:
- Loss of a boyfriend or girlfriend where they would like to be together still. Making them feel they are not good enough.
- Bullying, not being in the friendship group they want to be in, or no friends at all. They perceive themselves again as not good enough. Here is an article about bullying and another about cyberbullying.
- Sexual, verbal, and physical abuse of themselves or someone in the family, where they don’t feel they can intervene. Therefore they feel powerless when they know what they are seeing is wrong. Here we have an article about discussing sexual predators with your children.
- Falling behind peers in the learning curve. That is not reaching the same levels of achievement in academics or sport. Especially at a time of examinations when they realize that they may not be able to achieve the grades necessary to fulfill their aims,
Or it can be having to deal with several serious home issues. For example:
- Neglect – physical or emotional.
- Exposure to violence.
- Loss of a parent or caregiver.
- Physical or emotional trauma.
- Divorce of parents.
- Excessive stress.
- School problems.
Signs That Your Child May Be Depressed
Signs of depression show up in each child differently. Part of learning how to help children with depression recognizes the signs and symptoms when they show up. Find some common signs and symptoms of depression below.
- Restlessness or feeling slowed down.
- Too little or too much sleep.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Excessive risk-taking with disinterest for safety.
- Issuing threats to leave home.
- Withdrawal from family and friends.
- Physical discomforts such as stomach aches, headaches, and tiredness.
- Irritability and aggression.
- Persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
- Quickness to anger.
- Chronic loss of interest in activities they love.
- A quick weight change.
- Suicidal thoughts or attempts.
- Persistent boredom.
- Hypersensitivity to failure and rejection.
- That is, acting younger than their age.
- Feelings of guilt or inadequacy.
- Frequent and easy tears.
How to Talk to Your Child About Depression
Getting your child to talk about their health is difficult. As stated previously, stigma and misinformation continue to hamper family intervention, especially where it involves a child whose knowledge of the subject is already nonexistent. The child may do what they can to keep their sadness in, showing only their happy face around the house. Talking to your child about depression can go a long way in demystifying and destigmatizing the subject. This, in turn, opens a communication channel between you and your child, making it easier for them to come to you when they need help. But how do you start such a discussion?
Heather Senior Monroe, a licensed clinical social worker, and psychotherapist who specializes in the healing of relational trauma, recommends that you “Start slowly and gauge the child’s interest as you go. You don’t need to give them too much information. You might start by explaining that depression is like other illnesses that your child may be familiar with, like the flu or an ear infection. It isn’t our fault that we get sick, but it’s important to do things that help us feel better.”
It would help if you tailored your language according to your child’s age and development. It allows you to step into their shoes to get a sense of how they might be perceiving what you’re saying. However, give the child some space to talk and ask questions. If they start talking about their feelings and experiences, encourage them by asking open-ended questions. And if all they have are questions, answer them to the best of your knowledge. For questions you don’t have answers to, assure them that you’ll find out and get back to them.
How Can I Help My Child With Depression?
According to David Fassler, a child and adolescent psychiatrist practicing in Burlington, research shows that over half of all kids with clinical depression will attempt suicide at least once, and over 7% will die as a result. So helping a child with depression is never something to sit on. Early treatment and support can help your child get better quicker and avoid future recurrence. Find some tips on how to help your child with depression below. However, the biggest advice we can give is to reach out now to a professional if you are concerned. Unfortunately, this area of health care is underfunded, but in the same way you would not try to operate on a child but rather help them till you take them to a hospital. A mental illness should be treated in the same way. We can build resilience and help with minor injuries, but if they show any of the symptoms above for more than a few weeks, you need to reach out for help.
- Try getting through to them. Getting through to your child is the first of many steps you might make as you find ways to help them through depression. The child may shut you out at first, but you must remain gently persistent, and open to listening without judgment. For many children with depression, it’s usually more a case of wanting to say something without knowing how to put it in words adequately. So show them your concern and willingness to listen while giving them the time and space to get to the point of talking. Subsequently, when your child finally opens up, acknowledge their feelings and don’t trivialize the source by trying to play it down. Let them know that they have your listening ears, unconditional love, and support. If your child refuses to open up to you, try involving a third party. It could be their favorite teacher or mental health professional.
- Encourage them to reconnect socially. One of the signs of depression is withdrawal from friends, family, and even favorite activities. A chronic loss of enthusiasm causes this, and withdrawal only makes things worse. So you should do your best to help them reconnect socially without being too pushy. Start by spending more time with your child without distractions, whether it’s your phone or computer. Showing them that you value them even if they feel no one, even themselves does. Use that avenue to encourage them to go out with friends and participate in activities. You can even try suggesting activities you know your child likes and offer to participate in them. One thing to be especially careful of however is the dangers of social media, they may be drawn to groups that may make things worse. Here we have a section on social media.
- Help improve their physical health. Your child’s mental health is also connected to their physical health. Another known sign of depression is the neglect of outward appearance, especially in teenagers. Establish a healthy home environment, discourage eating junk food, going to bed late, not bathing, and excessive time with gadgets. Also, encourage them to exercise, as it is essential for good mental health. Remember, nagging isn’t the way to get them to do these things. Let it come from a place of empathy and care. Be creative about it and offer incentives if you have to. Maybe ask them to walk the dog, hike, jog, skateboard, or even dance with you. You can’t sit on the settee and tell them to go for a bike ride. When you come back, ask them to reflect on how they feel.
- Be supportive through treatment. It is normal to feel exhausted at some point. It’s never easy being a parent to a depressed child. But do your best to be patient and stay involved in your child’s treatment to ensure that he or she is following instructions. Watch out for the changes and call the doctor if symptoms worsen. You will also need to look after your mental health. You can not care for them if you are exhausted. You will need to sleep more and eat well. It is exhausting.
Final Thoughts on Talking to Your Child About Depression
Through everything, it’s important not to treat your child’s depression as a taboo subject. It won’t matter what you tell the child if their depression is whispered about at home and hidden from some family members. This will make them feel like they’re carrying something shameful, and that can be extremely damaging. If anything, family members and close friends should be aware and provide support when they can. Living with a depressed child can be very draining. Having extra support will allow you some time to take care of yourself and other family members.