Eli is eight years old. He has been diagnosed with depression. And, like it is for anyone with this diagnosis, depression is a daily battle for Eli. His father is essentially absent. His single mother is single-handedly raising three children, working full-time, and trying to do the impossible; stay calm and level while doing it all.
Eli’s mum asked me, “How do I help my son?” She described his outbursts of anger, frustration, and profound sadness. She highlighted their communication problems – “he doesn’t talk to me”. She cried about his friendship issues. “Other eight-year-olds don’t know how to interact with a depressed kid.” She desperately wants to help him but doesn’t know how.
Dealing with depression in our children is confronting. It stretches parents in ways that they did not know they could be stretched. And for a parent, seeing their child suffering may be the hardest trial we can endure. Coping with the emotional burden is substantial. But the physical and economic realities that co-occur with a challenge like Eli’s are enormous too. There’s the extra supervision, the time away from work, the exhaustion (mentally and physically), and the financial cost of finding help.
If you suspect your child might be depressed, here are some steps you can take.
Seek professional help
First, visit a GP. Your doctor is not a psychologist but she (or he) can direct you to the right help. That help might be via a paediatrician, a psychologist, an occupational therapist, a psychiatrist, or another health professional.
If you do receive a referral for a psychologist your GP will usually be able to provide you with access to a government-subsidised mental health plan.
It’s important that you find a mental health professional (typically a psychologist) whose specialty is depression in childhood. Find someone with the relevant training and experience in childhood mental health. Psychologists should be up front about their areas of experience and specialty, and will ideally indicate that they work a lot with children and young people.
A good GP – and a good psychologist – will also check in with you to make sure you’re doing ok, and to provide you with the support you might need as you work through these challenges.
Don’t ignore the problem. Get support.
Provide emotional support
If your child had asthma and couldn’t breathe, you wouldn’t tell him to “get over it”, “think positive”, or assure him that “you’ll be right”. You would get help.
When your child has depression, tough love is unlikely to be helpful. Nor is “positive thinking”. Such statements will usually leave your child feeling unworthy, unsupported, misunderstood, and unloved.
If your child is depressed, you become their most important resource. Great parent-child relationships are the building blocks for all future relationships, and the foundation for our children’s wellbeing. So what do you do to provide emotional support?
First, accept what is going on. Don’t try to “change” your child. Don’t try to talk them out of their sadness. The emphasis on sadness will only exacerbate it – and add to their feelings of not being good enough. Demanding they shape up and shift their attitude makes them believe they are faulty. It further embeds their feeling that “I must not be ok.”
Acceptance means saying to your child, “You’re depressed – and that doesn’t change the reality that you are still just fine the way you are.” It means saying, “You’re depressed, and we can learn to understand this together – as a team.” It means saying, “You’re depressed – and I love you. No matter what.”
(It’s also worth noting that depression doesn’t always present as sadness or withdrawal. It often presents as anger or attitude.)
Help them feel connected
Depression can lead to isolation and loneliness. And a lack of interaction and connection can worsen depression symptoms. This can create a cycle of deepening depression for your child. To break this cycle we need to foster connection.
They may feel lousy. They may be angry. They may not want to do anything at all. While supporting their right to feel like that, we can also find ways for them to engage with others.
Encourage (don’t force) your child to join a club at school or attend activities and various social events. Arrange play dates and sleepovers and organise family get togethers. Seek out whatever will help your child stay connected with people. It will help.
Encourage a healthy lifestyle
Research shows that eating healthily, getting enough sleep and participating in regular exercise can help manage the symptoms of depression. In fact, being active and in nature can be a game-changer for many people with depression. Encourage your child to play a sport or take regular walks with them. Provide healthy options for meals and snacks and set a reasonable and consistent bed time.
Most importantly, model these healthy choices yourself. You can’t force your child to make healthy choices, but gentle suggestions and being a great example yourself can certainly help encourage them to do so.
Find the spark
Several influential people encourage parents to help their struggling children to find their spark. The spark is the thing that lights them up inside, and gives them joy and feelings of excellence, competency and individuality. It connects them to others and to the world by helping them find a place to belong. And it gives them a focus that inspires and elevates their being!
There is something magical that happens when we forget ourselves and focus on others. Perhaps there is a cause your child can contribute to, a person they can help, or a global movement they can be a part of. Becoming part of something bigger than self leads to hope, a belief that “I can do hard things”, and a sense of personal fulfillment. Perhaps there is a way that your child can contribute, make a difference, and move outside of him- or her-self.
Reinforce their worthiness
Ultimately, your child is desperate to know you love him or her, unconditionally. Empty platitudes won’t work. But find a way to communicate that you are proud of your child, your child is brave enough, and your child is good enough, just the way they are. Feelings of self-worth plummet during depressive episodes. Our goal is to help our child feel worthy. And they feel worthy when they do brave things, help others, and feel connected with us.