Depression is usually defined as a persistent feeling of sadness, often accompanied by a sense of hopelessness, disconnection and loss of interest in the activities of daily life that were previously meaningful.
Depression is not a choice. It is not caused by the child being weak, or unmotivated, or focusing on the negative. Depression is a biological reality for the person who is struggling with it, and they can't just "decide" to overcome it.
While we are in a period of depression, our brain works differently than when we are not depressed, although scientists are still working to tease out how much the brain changes cause the depression, versus how much the depression causes changes in the brain.
Depression can be successfully treated with medication, with therapy that treats trauma and interpersonal issues, and with therapy that teaches mindfulness and other techniques to manage the mind’s tendency to engage in negative thoughts and perceptions.
In children and teens, symptoms of depression can include:
- Persistent sadness and hopelessness, including frequent crying
- Persistent crankiness and anger, including frequent outbursts
- Noticeable changes in appetite and sleep patterns
- Diminished interest in normal activities and social interactions
- Difficulty concentrating and lack of interest in academics
- Persistent upsetting or dread-inducing thoughts (which may include thoughts of suicide)
It is normal for a child or teen to respond with symptoms like this to an upsetting life event such as severe bullying, a serious illness, their parents divorcing, or a death in the family. In that case, the child needs support from parents, family, school and professionals, and the symptoms should gradually improve as the child works through the trauma.
If your child is exhibiting any of these symptoms, whether the cause is known or unknown, one of the most important things you can do to help is to listen to your child. Begin by warmly connecting and offering an observation like “You seem blue lately.” Hopefully your child will begin to tell you everything that is going wrong in their life. Take a breath, remind yourself not to get defensive, and listen. Resist your own desire to jump in to solve the problem. Just listen deeply.
Let your child know that you’re taking in what they’re saying with comments like:
- “Wow! That sounds hard.”
- “What a tough situation.”
- “It could be really upsetting to have your friend say that.”
- “I can see why that would upset you.”
- “My goodness! What happened then?”
- “I see. Tell me more.”
- “That isn’t what you wanted.”
- “It sounds like you wish that….”
- This would be a lot for anyone to deal with.”
- “No wonder you’re feeling upset.”
Remember that your child or teen feels things deeply and does not have the life context that you have, so an event that doesn’t seem like such a big deal to you can be deeply upsetting to them. You don’t have to solve this problem for your child, and often your child does not want you to do so. Instead, you might ask questions like “I wonder what you could do now?” Whatever your child’s answer, you might follow up with “Hmm. Yes, you could do that. I wonder what might happen then?”
Of course, sometimes your child or teen will confide in you that something is happening that they do need your active intervention to solve, such as bullying or abuse. Take a deep breath and manage your own reaction so that you can stay calm. Your child needs you to be the grown-up and handle the situation with maturity.
Don't try to talk your child out of their unhappiness, either about a specific issue or about life in general. It is only by accepting their own feelings that they can begin to work through them. Sometimes, just having a consistent warm and supportive ear is enough to help a child or teen feel less alone, work through even big life issues, and resolve depression.
Emotional “Preventive Maintenance” also plays an important role in helping children work through pent-up emotions on a daily basis. Preventive Maintenance includes:
- Empathy 24/7
- Lots of laughter
- One on one time with you daily in which you just enjoy your child and pour your love into him.
- Welcoming emotions – so, for instance, when your child expresses anger, you acknowledge it and listen even if the expression starts off in a rude way.
- Routines that include regular opportunities for connection so your child can count on an opportunity to tell you upsetting things and be heard.
When someone is depressed, they usually feel hopeless and despairing. The first step out of that hopelessness and despair is sometimes a shift toward anger, which at least feels empowering. If your child begins to express anger, remind yourself that this is a step toward health.
Then, step up your listening so that you understand what is upsetting your child. Set limits on behavior – your child can’t hit someone or destroy property – but it’s important that they be able to express in words what they are upset about. If you can stay calm and empathize with the upset, you will often find that your angry child or teen begins to soften and express the pain that is under the anger. That can often jumpstart healing for minor depression.
What if your child's sadness and other symptoms of depression persist? If you are using Preventive Maintenance and working to strengthen your connection with your child or teen, but:
- You don’t see improvement in their mood, and
- They seem closed-off to you, and
- They have been exhibiting any of the symptoms above for more than a few weeks, then
It’s time to seek expert support. Begin with a visit to your pediatrician to rule out physical illness, and to obtain a referral for therapy.
If your child is struggling with depression, be sure to get support for yourself as well, so that you can support your child. A tendency to depression can be caused by genetic predisposition, early trauma, and challenging life events, especially those that are persistent and result in a feeling of loss, loneliness or being powerless. But obsessing about the cause of your child's depression is not helpful -- that's a defense against the feelings of fear and grief that we as parents often feel when our child is struggling. Try to look at this as an opportunity to get closer to your child by giving them the support they need, and to help your child develop skills and strategies to heal and to manage adversity. They'll use those skills for the rest of their life.