As a parent, your child's well-being is your top priority. So, when you notice signs that your child might be struggling with low mood or depression, it can be a cause for concern. When these worries start to invade your mind, it can be challenging to know how to help. Parents can play a critical role in helping support a young person. Parents need first to understand the warning signs of depression, learn how to talk to their children about their feelings, and know where to turn for help.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), depression affects a large number of our nation's youth, with approximately 2.7 million children diagnosed with depression between the years 2016 and 2019. Recognizing depression in your child can be tricky, as adolescence can be a period of tumultuous moods. Parents, however, should pay attention to the following signs persisting over weeks or even months, as it may be an indication of depression:
• Frequent sadness or irritability
• Social withdrawal or isolation
• Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
• Decline in school performance
• Lack of interest in hobbies or activities
• Fatigue and low energy
• Expressing feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
• Self-harm or thoughts of suicide
These symptoms are more than just feeling sad; it's a complex mental health condition that affects a person's mood, thoughts, and daily functioning. It often involves persistent sadness, hopelessness, and a loss of interest in things your child once enjoyed. It can manifest physically with symptoms like fatigue, changes in appetite, and sleep disturbances. Monitoring your child for distinct shifts in mood and functioning will help parents identify those initial symptoms.
How to Talk to Your Child
When you suspect that your child may be experiencing depression, the next steps can be challenging to navigate as a parent. These are tough conversations to have with anyone, especially your child. What is essential is open, honest, and compassionate communication is crucial.
Here are some tips on what to say and what not to say:
First, it is essential to be "real." Kids have excellent barometers and will be able to pick up on your emotions, too. Say how you feel. Model that it is okay to talk openly about feelings.
"These are some hard questions for me to ask. I have been feeling very scared for you because you do not seem yourself lately."
Make the conversation easy for them. If you ask your child questions that require them to come up with too much, too quickly, it may be difficult to verbalize their feelings. They may not be able to define these feelings. Asking questions, such as "How are you feeling?" can result in responses such as "I'm okay." Instead, offer examples backed by observations. "I am worried about you. You have not been talking with your friends, and you have been more quiet at home. Tell me how you are feeling."
The tone you choose and the questions you ask will provide them with a sense that you are there for them. Asking questions that are more open-ended and can not be easily answered with a "yes" or "no" can prompt a deeper discussion.
Normalize their emotions. This approach means helping them to understand that what they are going through is not their fault. "Feeling sad sometimes is okay and happens for a lot of kids your age. What is important to me is that you have someone there to support you."
Avoid downplaying their feelings or minimizing their emotions. This approach often comes from an effort to help, but it can have the opposite impact. Statements such as those below can be invalidating and make them feel unheard and isolated:
"You'll get over it; it's just a phase."
"You have nothing to be sad about."
Don't be afraid to ask the tough questions. It is no surprise that many people shy away from asking questions about suicide. It's important to know that asking the question will not "make" someone act on the thoughts. It can open the door to ensure they feel they have someone who will listen to how difficult things are for them. Ask direct questions that are nonjudgemental, such as "Have you thought about hurting yourself or suicide?" When the question is posed with judgment or an inference of the answer you seek, it will prevent the opportunity for conversation. Questions such as "You don't think about suicide, right?" should be avoided.
Based on some of the information you gather from these conversations, you may recognize you need help in supporting your child. Offer this as a helpful resource for your child. "It is really important to me that you have someone to talk to about all this difficult stuff. I understand it might be hard for you to talk to me about these things. Let's explore a counselor who can be a confidential support for you."
If you are not ready to seek a therapist, other resources are available. Consult the school counselor who can provide support for students dealing with mental health issues, offering guidance and resources to help your child. Sometimes, a connection with support groups, either local or online, for both you and your child can be an excellent place to start. These groups offer a safe space to share experiences, learn coping strategies, and find a supportive community.
Recognising and supporting a child experiencing low mood or depression is a significant step toward their recovery. By understanding depression, talking openly and empathetically, and accessing the best support, you can help your child navigate these difficult emotions and work towards a brighter, healthier future. Remember, you are not alone on this journey, and there is help available for both you and your child.