Everyone feels depressed at one time or another, even children, of all ages. There may be an obvious cause, the loss of a loved one or a pet, an argument with a friend, a major illness or a divorce. You may see your child (or someone elses) acting in a depressed way and it’s very likely it is a normal reaction to a hard situation. But when the behaviors continue or don’t seem to have a reason there may be an underlying mental health issue. It is important to get professional help for both you and your child to map out a clear plan of action.
Here are some ideas to help understand your child and their feelings. First it’s very likely that “depression” can be a mix of many feelings such as anxiety, fear, anger, helplessness and more. Be careful to not just group them all under the umbrella of ‘depression’. Another tip is to not try to talk your child out of their feelings. Let them own those. Everyone reacts to situations differently and something may really feel like a big deal to your child (even if you may think they are over –reacting). Keep communication open allowing your child to feel safe knowing they can tell you how they feel without any judgment on your part.
Children have a wide range of emotions and they can move through them extremely quickly seeming happy one minute and sullen the next. Children get angry, jealous, hurt, sad and have anxiety and fears just like the rest of us. Emotional education is very important. Teach your child about emotions and coping strategies and healthy outlets for their feelings. There are many books out there for parents and children about emotions and how to handle them. (I will be posting a series about different emotions and tips and resources to help teach them to your child this month).
Talk to your child. Sometimes all it takes is an open ended question to be the invitation to open up. If your child is younger you can ask silly questions to get them to talk about the issue, such as “Are you sad because bunny rabbit didn’t play with you today?” Or more specific questions like “Are you angry because I had a lot of work to do today and you feel left out?” But be careful to not assume (without asking) why your child seems upset. Often their reason is very different from our perceptions.
Parenting is hard work and we try our best, but there are some behaviors that can add to a child’s sense of helplessness which can lead to depression. Being over controlling, over protective or having extremely high expectations can add stress to you child which can lead to feelings of anger or resentment which may be internalized leading to depression in your child. It’s always a balancing act to motivating your child and not pushing them…all children are different and it will take trial and error. If you notice mood changes in your child then you may evaluate what you role could possibly be and make a slight adjustment. Also try not to take sides in your children’s arguments or compare children by saying anything along the lines of one should be more like the other.
Some young children will mention suicide although it is more prevalent in adolescents. If a child talks of dying or ending their own life or ‘wishing they could disappear’ it is important to take these words seriously. It is very important to get professional help right away. Find a therapist who offers drug-free therapy. Children and adolescents need to work out their feelings not mask them. Medication may turn out to be a component in their treatment later on but they first need time to discuss and process those feelings so you and the professional can get to the core of the issue. Mood swings are very real and children need coping strategies to deal with these.
It is important to use the words suicide and death when talking to anyone who has said they wish to die (or any variation of that idea). Don’t shy away from the realism of the situation. Ask if they have a plan or what they are thinking of doing. If there is any sort of a plan get help immediately (if you haven’t already). Ask the child what they think would change if they killed themselves. Most times what they tell you will give you an insight to their troubles.
Make sure you spend quality time with your child letting them know you are there and willing to listen no matter what. Teach your child that mistakes are just a way to learn and that no matter the mistake suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. The perfectionist mentality is often a common piece in the reasons for suicide. Make sure you are open and honest with your child about any struggles you or family members have had emotionally. Most mental illnesses are genetic and there often is a family pattern. Make sure they know their feelings aren’t their fault and that there are solutions available.
Emotions are complicated. Growing up is hard and feels like a roller-coaster of ups and downs. Parents need to take the time to talk to children about feelings and have strategies available to help their children foster emotional intelligence. The more understanding children have at a young age about their feelings the better they will get at being able to handle them as they mature.
In memory of Robin Williams and the many others who felt alone and unable to cope with how they felt. My hope is that we as parents can start a trend in not just wanting intellectually smart children but emotionally smart ones as well.
*Resources read to gather info related to this post: Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen, Ed.D, Positive Discipline for Preschoolers by Jane Nelsen, Ed.D,Cheryl Erwin,MA, and Roslyn Ann Duffy, Positive Discipline A-Z 1001 Solutions to Everyday Parenting Problems by Jane Nelsen, Ed.D, Lynn Lott, MA,MFT, and H. Steven Glenn