Childhood Depression: What Parents Can Do To Help
Encourage Healthy Habits
- These include exercise, outdoor play, healthy diet, sleep, limiting screen time, one-on-one time with parents, praise for positive behavior, and acknowledgment of the child’s strengths. Caring for oneself can be honestly presented as therapeutic.
Consider the Environment
- Think about whether there are grief and loss issues in your child and/or other family members. Grief and loss are virtually universal childhood experiences. Children vary widely in their reactions to these events, depending on their developmental level, temperament, prior state of mental health, coping mechanisms, parents’ responses, and support system. Seek supportive counseling if this does not seem to be resolving appropriately.
- Reduce stress. Your family can work to try to reduce stresses and increase support for your child/adolescent. This may involve reasonable and short-term changes in demands and responsibilities, including negotiating extensions or other ways of reducing stress at school; it can also include seeking help for others in the family who are distressed. If you as a parent are grieving a loss or manifesting symptoms of depression, it is particularly important that you address your own needs and find additional support for your child and other family members.
- Guns should be removed from the home and other weapons, medications (including over-the-counter preparations and acetaminophen), and alcohol should be removed from the home, destroyed, or secured.
Educate Your Family
- Your child is not making the symptoms up.
- What looks like laziness or crossness can be symptoms of depression.
- There is often a family history of depression; talking about this may reduce stigma and increase empathy in other family members.
- Depression is very common and not the result of lack of coping ability or personal strength.
- The hopelessness of depression is a symptom, not an accurate reflection of reality. However, this negative view of the world and of future possibilities can be hard to penetrate.
- Treatment works, though it can take several weeks for improvement, and the affected individual is often the last person to recognize that it has taken place.
Help Your Child to Develop Cognitive and Coping Skills
- Many negative thoughts can be empathetically challenged and looked at from another perspective. Helpful metaphors include, “Little steps uphill, big steps downhill”; “Long journeys start with a single step”; “The glass is half full, not half empty.”
- Relaxation techniques and visualization (eg, practicing relaxing cued by a pleasant memory, imagining being in a pleasant place) can be helpful for sleep and for anxiety-provoking situations.
- Take advantage of what your child already does to feel better or relax and, if appropriate, encourage more of that (behavioral activation). Encourage a focus on strengths rather than weaknesses. Encourage doing more of what the teen is good at.
Help Your Child to Develop Problem-Solving Skills
- Determine what small, achievable steps would help your child feel that he or she is on the way to overcoming his or her problems.
- Suggest that your child begin to list out difficulties, prioritize them, and concentrate efforts on one issue one small step at a time.
Rehearse Behavior and Social Skills
- Reactions to particular situations or people often seem to trigger or maintain low mood. If these can be identified, assist your child in developing and practicing means of avoidance or alternative responses.
- Encourage your child to practice doing things and thinking thoughts that improve mood.
Create a Safety and Emergency Plan
- Develop a list of telephone numbers to call in the event of a sudden increase in distress.
- Remove weapons and other potentially lethal products from your home.
- Watch for risk factors for suicide, such as increased agitation, stressors, loss of rational thinking, and expressed wishes to die.
- If your child is starting a medication for depression, develop a monitoring schedule with her physician.
- Locate numbers for suicide or depression hotlines, on-call telephone numbers for your physician, or contact information for the area mental health crisis response team.
Modified from: American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on Mental Health. Addressing Mental Health Concerns in Primary Care: A Clinician’s Toolkit [CD-ROM]. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics; 2010.
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The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.