No parent wants to think their child could be at risk of depression. You want your child to be happy and carefree. But the sobering reality is children can be diagnosed with a depressive disorder as young as 3 years old.
There is, however, a simple yet powerful thing you can do to help your child: talk with them about depression. In this article, we’ll walk through why it’s important to talk about depression from an early age, how to have an age-appropriate conversation with your child, and what to do if your child shows signs of depression.
Depression, also known as major depressive disorder or MDD, is a diagnosable mental health condition that affects a child’s thinking, mood and behavior. To be clear, depression is not the same as feeling sad or having ‘the blues.’ With depression, symptoms occur nearly every day and last for two weeks or more.
Children of almost any age can experience worry, low mood or depression. However, it’s generally more common among older children.
When it comes to depression, there are a few specific signs and symptoms to watch for to help you to spot depression in children – specifically, if they:
To put it simply, depression among children and youth is on the rise.
A global analysis including more than two dozen studies found the rate of depression symptoms in kids nearly doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic – from around 1 in 8 kids in January 2020 to 1 in 4 barely more than a year later. This includes roughly 2.7 million children in the US ages 3 to 17 who’ve been diagnosed with depression.
Many parents are hesitant to talk about depression with their kids – whether it’s because of stigma around mental health, the fear that mentioning depression will somehow make things worse, or just not knowing where to start. But one of the best things you can do for your child is to start having an open, honest, age-appropriate conversation now.
There are several effective treatments for depression, and it’s important to identify it early so you can help your child get the care they need.
How you approach any conversation about depression – and what you say – depends in part on your child’s age and developmental stage. While every child is different, the message you want to give is that you are available to listen and support them. They are not alone.
Here are some general guidelines by age:
Your first impulse might be to panic – but don’t. While it can be terrifying to hear your child is struggling with depression, the fact that they’re confiding in you is good news. It means they feel safe with you, and it gives you a chance to show you’ve got their back.
Listening and acknowledging your child’s feelings is essential – it’s the only way they’ll continue to feel safe confiding in you. Try asking open-ended questions like, ‘What are some times you feel hopeless?’ or, ‘What used to feel easy that feels much harder now?’
You may need to offer gentle prompts, to help your child find the words to describe what they are feeling.
Don’t dismiss what your child shares, under any circumstances. Take any warning signs of depression, spoken or unspoken, seriously.
Remember, depression is never their fault and they have not done anything wrong. Your child needs affirmation and support, not judgment.
The parental urge to rush to solutions is strong. Don’t forget, your child craves your empathy and support a lot more than they need solutions or advice.
Remind your child that lots of people experience depression, and there are plenty of treatments (therapy and medicines) that can help them feel better.
One of the best ways to do this is to spend lots of quality time with your child. Depending on your child’s age and developmental stage, it may also be appropriate to talk about your own experiences of depression, where relevant.
Gently encourage your older child or teen to do things known to improve their mood and sense of well-being. Depending on how they are feeling, it may be helpful to start small and slowly build up the level of activity you are trying to encourage. Here are just a few examples:
Continue asking open-ended questions about how they’re feeling and how you can help support them – for example, ‘How can I help you if I notice that you are tearful?’ or, ‘Would it be okay if I checked in with you every day?’
Let your child know it’s ok to talk to you about anything they’re feeling or experiencing – including thoughts of self-harm or suicide. Also be sure to encourage them to let you or another trusted adult know if things are getting worse.
Start getting your child the support they need as soon as possible. A first step may be to take your child to see their general practitioner, pediatrician, school counsellor or mental health professional. In most countries, there are online programs and mental health support lines that may be helpful.
IMPORTANT: If you believe they are in immediate danger, take them to an emergency room or contact a suicide hotline:
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Emergency number: 000
Kids helpline: 1800 55 1800
Depression can be scary, especially when it’s your kid. Remember: by talking openly with them about depression, its symptoms, signs and treatments, you’re letting them know they don’t have to struggle alone.
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