Depression: It’s a mental health condition that affects 350 million people worldwide and approximately 16 million each year in the USA. Not limited to adults, depression can affect children and teenagers, too. Do you know what to do if your child is depressed? It’s important not to ignore the situation because depression can lead to poor grades, a loss of friends, and, in severe cases, even suicide. Read on to find out what parents can do to help a depressed child or teenager.
Know the Signs of Depression
It can be easy to overlook the signs of depression. After all, children and teenagers are known for sometimes overreacting, crying, and having mood swings. How can you tell run-of-the-mill moodiness or the simple blues from actual depression? Check out this list of symptoms and see if your child has them:
- Sadness, discouragement, or hopelessness that impacts your child’s life and lasts for two weeks or longer.
- Being self-critical most of the time, saying that they think they are stupid or that they’re worthless.
- Having a lack of energy, not wanting to get out of bed in the morning.
- Insomnia, not being able to fall asleep or stay asleep.
- Appetite changes, either eating too much or too little.
- Apathy, not being interested in things that they used to find enjoyable.
- Falling grades, not being able to or interested in keeping up with schoolwork.
- Dropping friends, sports, and other activities.
- Talking about wanting to die, showing signs of suicidal ideation.
If you are concerned that your child or adolescent is dealing with depression, seek help promptly. If they are showing signs of suicidal ideation, seek help immediately.
Talk to Your Child
Children and teenagers are not always able to express their feelings adequately. This can lead to further depression and frustration. Do what you can to get your child to talk to you about how they are feeling. Ask them, in age-appropriate terms, if they are feeling depressed. Are they worried about something, or is something bothering them that has happened weeks or months ago? A family trauma or the breakup of a romantic relationship can trigger depression, but oftentimes, nothing at all triggers it and it simply appears.
If you suspect that your older child or teenager is depressed, ask them if they ever have suicidal feelings. Many parents are reluctant to bring up suicide because they fear that they’ll be planting ideas, but in reality, talking about suicide can diminish the power of depression. Don’t be afraid to bring it up.
Encourage Healthy Habits
Individuals with depression might notice a decrease in their symptoms when they focus on healthy habits such as eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly. Eating fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains can give your child more energy and minimize large fluctuations in blood sugar levels, which can impact their mood. Not getting enough sleep can exacerbate depression. Finally, exercise has been shown to boost serotonin levels and can be as effective as antidepressants for someone with mild depression.
Help Your Child Reduce Stress
Today’s children and teenagers are under a lot of stress. They have to worry about schoolwork and getting good grades, extracurricular activities, chores, spending time with their friends, and more. Teens might have part-time jobs and college applications. Many kids find it frustrating to keep up with everything that they need to do.
Learning how to reduce stress and relax can help reduce depression symptoms. First, allow your child to drop non-essential activities. For example, if your pre-teen is taking piano lessons and drama classes and is on a soccer team, they might need to give up one or two of these extra activities. Also, teach your child some relaxation techniques that can help reduce stress. These might include:
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Listening to music
- Watching a funny movie
Maintain a Routine
For a depressed child, sticking to a routine can reduce stress and anxiety and help relieve some of their symptoms. Depression can make your child feel like they have an overwhelming number of things to do and take care of. Knowing that they have a rhythm to their days can help decrease those feelings. During the summer, it’s easy to get into the habit of staying in bed all day, so make up a routine that will get them out of bed and, preferably, out of the house.
Modify Expectations If Necessary
While your child is dealing with depression, it’s important to modify your expectations somewhat. Don’t throw all of your expectations to the wind and don’t tolerate disrespectful behavior, but if their grades slip a bit or if your teen is unable to keep his or her job, allow them to take a step back from those responsibilities until the depression is under control. The most important work that your depressed child needs to do is to begin the recovery process. Talk to your child’s counselor about what are appropriate expectations for the stage that they’re in.
Seek Professional Help
While self-help measures and lifestyle changes can help your depressed child or teen feel better, clinical depression needs to be treated with therapy and/or medication. Talk to your child’s pediatrician or family doctor to learn about the different options available. He or she might refer your child to a counselor for cognitive behavioral therapy. They might also be prescribed medication; be sure to do some research on the benefits and risks of antidepressants for children and teenagers and talk to the doctor about your concerns.
Helping your child battle depression won’t be easy, but the sooner you seek treatment and make changes, the sooner your child will begin to feel better. Depression can be a dark time. Learning how to manage it now will help your child in the future, too, if he or she has to deal with it again. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help as you walk with your depressed child or teen through this difficult time.