Depression: What is it and how can I help my child?

What is Depression?

Depression is defined by the National Institute on Mental Health as a serious and treatable condition
that is characterized by feelings of sadness, irritability, hopelessness, and guilt. These symptoms affect
the way we think, behave, and feel, including difficulties with sleep, school, and relationships
(https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression).

What types of depressive disorders are there?

There are several different depressive disorder types, including major depressive disorder, persistent
depressive disorder, and disruptive mood dysregulation disorder. Major depressive disorder is
diagnosed when symptoms have been present in a child for at least two weeks, and when they are
causing significant distress in school, with family, and in other relationships. Persistent depressive
disorder is a more chronic form of major depression and requires symptoms to be present for more than
a year in children and adolescents. Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder, or DMDD, is a type of
depressive disorder, however, it may look different than conventional depression. DMDD is
characterized by severe and recurrent temper outbursts that can look like verbal rage or physical
aggression toward people and property (DSM V, 2013).

Signs and Symptoms (DSM V, 2013)

The following signs and symptoms may be present in someone suffering from depression or other
depressive disorders:

 Irritability or anger
 Temper outbursts
 Fatigue
 Insomnia
 Feeling sad, empty, or hopeless
 Not wanting to engage in activities that the child once enjoyed
 Weight loss or weight gain
 Inability to concentrate
 Having thoughts of wanting to die
 Low self-esteem

Other symptoms that may be present in addition to those listed above include anxiety (feeling tense,
restless, fear of something awful happening), mania (elevated mood, inflated self-esteem, being more
talkative than normal), or psychosis (delusions or hallucinations).

It is important to remember that these signs and symptoms don’t always mean a depressive disorder is
present. Contacting a medical provider to have an evaluation done is always helpful to determine if your
child needs to be diagnosed and needs help.

If your child is experiencing symptoms along with feeling suicidal, immediately contact a crisis line or
take them to an emergency room to be evaluated. It is also important to restrict access to anything that
may harm them, including firearms and medication.

 

The new suicide prevention crisis line is 988, and applications like SafeUT can also assist in giving your
child or adolescent a resource to speak to someone if they are feeling unsafe.

What can I do?

Often parents feel helpless when their child is experiencing depression. What can I do, am I the
problem, and what is going on are often questions parents ask when seeking help. The good news is
depression is treatable, and parents can make a significant difference in helping their children feel
better.

Validation

One of the simplest and often difficult things a parent can do is validate their child who is struggling.
Validation is the acceptance that another person’s thoughts, feelings and experiences are
understandable based on what they have been through and how they experience the world
(https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/pieces-mind/201204/understanding-validation-way-
communicate-acceptance). There are six ways a parent can validate their child:

1. Listen
Simply sitting and listening to why your child is struggling can show them you care and are there to help
them. Remember to let go of judgments during this process. Try to empathize with your child’s
experience rather than questioning it.

2. Reflect and Acknowledge
Reflecting or summarizing what your child is telling you can also be helpful. Ask them if you have
understood them correctly to make sure you are developing an understanding of their experience.

3. Acknowledge thoughts and feelings that may be unspoken
This can be as simple as saying “you seem sad because…” or asking questions to confirm what your child
is thinking and feeling.

4. Understanding behavior/emotions based on past experiences
It may be difficult to fully understand why your child thinks or feels a certain way but reminding yourself
of what they have experienced in the past may make it easier to empathize with their struggles.

5. Understanding behavior/emotions based on current struggles
In the same way we try to understand or empathize with our children based on their past struggles, the
same can be helpful with current experiences. Voice how it makes sense that they are struggling based
on what is currently going on in their life.

6. Being genuine
Sometimes it is difficult to know what to say when speaking with your child. Remember that being
genuine and expressing how you feel can create space for your child to do the same.

Seek Help

It is helpful to remember that you don’t have to “fix” your child’s problems or take care of them on your
own. Scheduling a consultation with your pediatrician to determine if medication or therapy would be
helpful can make it easier to know how to support your child.

While waiting for your child’s appointment, the following skills may help them feel better and prepare
for counseling:

 Deep breathing: breathing deeply in through the nose and out through the mouth at least 20
times
 Exercise can help distract children as well as provide them positive feelings
 Muscle relaxation: squeezing muscles and then releasing them can help control emotions during
times of crisis
 Temperature: having your child take a bath or warm shower, or holding an ice pack when upset
can help them calm down enough to speak to you about what is going on
 Listen to music
 Draw/color
 Practice mindfulness/meditation
 Practice a hobby
Seek Knowledge
Educating yourself about mental health and depression can also be an effective way to help your child.
Below are some resources to better understand what your child may be going through.
 National Institute of Mental Health: http://www.nih.gov
 American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: https://aacap.org
 National Alliance for the Mentally Ill: https://www.namiut.org
 Anxiety and Depression Association of America: https://www.adaa.org
 Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens By Alvord, Karapetian, & McGrath
 Beyond the Blues By Lisa Schab
 Don’t Let Your Emotions Run Your Life for Teens By Van Dijk
 My Feeling Better Workbook By Hamil
 My Many Colored Days By Dr. Seuss
 How To Get Unstuck From the Negative Muck By Lake Sullivan
 The Way I Feel By Janan Cain