How can I help my depressed child?

Have you wondered “how can I help my depressed child?”  Depression is a condition that can affect a child’s ability to connect with friends and family, enjoy normal daily activities, attend and concentrate in school, and enjoy childhood. Proper diagnosis and a treatment plan with a licensed therapist is a good start; but it helps to know what to expect during the process and what you can do to be helpful.

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Understand the symptoms

Most people think that recognizing depression is obvious. It would look like tearfulness & open sadness. For children, the defining feature of a major depressive episode is usually irritability. It is important to watch for these other symptoms as well:

  • Sadness,  more withdrawn, or stating they are bored most of the time.

  • Not taking pleasure in usual activities. Complaining about having to participate.

  • Sleeping too much or too little. This would mean whatever is not normal for them.

  • Weight gain or weight loss. Children can hit growth spurts which can mask weight change. Look for refusal to eat or excessive snacking.

  • Feeling hopeless or helpless. Whining or acting infantile (sucking a thumb, carrying a security item) can indicate feelings of being overwhelmed.

  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions.

  • Fatigue. Children usually have boundless energy. When children are falling asleep earlier than usual or sleeping for longer periods of time, it could be depression.

  • Thoughts of death or suicide.

What to expect from treatment

Treatment for a depression can take time and sometimes involves trial and error. No two kids are the same.   It’s important to remain patient with the process to help your child feel safe. Next steps can include:

Educating your child and yourself about depression is a crucial first step. This helps your child understand the possible causes (genetics, environmental factors, bullying, stress, etc.), understand brain chemistry (low serotonin), and reduces self-blame. It also normalizes what your child is going through and that they are not broken or wrong.

Counseling is a good option for kids struggling with depression. There are different kinds of counseling and what works for one person might not work for another. For very young children, play therapy is an option. For older kids and teens, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Solution Focused Brief Therapy can be effective. It can take time to find the best patient/therapist match. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You know your child best. For severe cases of depression, including suicidal ideation, hospitalization is sometimes necessary

Medication might not be necessary in some cases.   Medication works best when combined with counseling.  Monitoring potential side effects is important and working closely with the prescribing physician is recommended. Click here to learn more about medication for depression in children.

What can I do at home?

Even with medication, there is no quick fix for depression. Treatment can seem long and slow going. Parents can help support children by doing the following:

Encouraging daily exercise (this does not have to include an organized sport. Family walks count.)

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Supervise taking medication.  It’s too much to ask a depressed child to manage their own medication.

Make time to talk. Counseling will help your child begin to talk about their feelings.  It’s your job to listen and provide unconditional support when your child opens up at home.

Healthy food choices can help with the treatment process. Protein rich foods promote energy, while junk food often leaves children “crashing” emotionally which can exacerbate symptoms.

Mental-Health-Grocery-List

Most of us need at least 8 hours for our bodies to recoup for the next day. Most children need at least 9-10 hours to do the same. Make sure you are providing a tranquil sleeping environment which may include background sounds (white noise) or cooler temperatures that encourage bodies to sleep. Also make bedtime a consistent time each night. Structure and routine are important for healthy development.Teen Sleep

How can the school help?

It’s difficult to perform well in school when thinking and concentration are impaired by depression. It’s important to include the classroom teacher and a school counselor on the treatment team to help your child work through this difficult time.  Classroom accommodations might benefit your child during this time.  Talk to the classroom teacher about the following:

The school can provide extended time for lengthy assignments and tests.

Breaking down assignments into manageable pieces (this is particularly helpful for kids who appear “overwhelmed”) can make completion seem easier.  Creating study or homework schedules can provide structure and tools for learning information.

Teachers can provide a copy of class notes which can helpful when concentration is impaired.

Offering the opportunity to take tests in a quiet room, free from distractions can help reduce distractions.

It can be helpful to have a plan in place should your child need a break during the day. Examples might include a daily check-in with a school counselor (in the early stage of treatment) and a weekly appointment with their therapist as your child stabilizes.

What can I expect from my child?

Children are not mini-adults. They are developing and changing at a rapid pace, even when they experience depression. Symptoms can intensify and lessen throughout treatment. You might find that the depression seems to have lifted, only to notice a relapse a few days later.

Irritability, feeling overwhelmed, and outbursts are common in depressed children. As hard as this can be for a parent, it is important to remain calm and focus on active listening. It’s the natural tendency for a parent to question “how can I help my depressed child” and want to “fix” the problem.  It can’t be fixed or stopped.  It can, however, improve. With proper treatment and supports in place, your child can thrive and enjoy childhood once again.

Stephanie Phillips, LCMHC

Stephanie Phillips, LCMHC, NCC, CCTP
Psychotherapist & Owner
The Mindly Group, PLLC