depression in children

Understanding depression in children and how to help your child overcome it

Childhood depression is a serious mental health issue. But with unconditional support, careful diagnosis and treatment, a depressed child can recover and enjoy childhood once again.
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Depression is one of the most widespread mental health problems in the world today, with rising cases among children and teens. Depression is more severe than mood swings or sadness and can seriously interfere with your child’s ability to function. If your child seems distressed, disheartened or miserable for a prolonged period, you need to look out for underlying issues that might be causing depression.

The general risk factors linked with depression in children include anxiety, hormonal changes during puberty and stressors. However, several other theories explain why depression is on the rise in children, starting with the influence of social media, which can severely impact their self-esteem. Also, increasing competition and the pressure to be the absolute best at everything can take a toll on their mental health. Other factors include a change of school and friends, conflict and tension at home, bullying at school or on social media, health issues, and parental separation or divorce.

Depression in children is real and can be destructive when left unresolved. However, effective treatment and support have proven successful in recovery and prevention. In order to heal, you need to make your child believe that things will improve.

By seeking professional help and treatment, and using additional support techniques, you can help your child overcome depression. Here are seven useful tips for parents and caregivers on how to be supportive in their children’s time of need.

Recognise the signs of depression

The early symptoms of depression in children are often overlooked or dismissed as episodes of mood swings. But that can be a huge mistake. A child may be depressed if he or she is irritable, sad, withdrawn or bored most of the time. Another sign of depression could be that the child no longer takes pleasure in things he or she used to enjoy. A child’s food habits (weight gain or loss) and sleep patterns (too much or too little) could also indicate underlying symptoms of depression. They may lack energy and become withdrawn during social interactions. They may feel hopeless, worthless or guilty and have trouble concentrating, thinking and making decisions. In its most severe form, depression can cause a child to lose hope and want to self-harm or die. If your child displays any of the above signs of depression lasting more than two weeks, he or she might need clinical assessment and treatment.

Talk with your child and provide support

Once you have identified the symptoms of depression in your child, talk to them to know what they’re dealing with. Encourage your child to open up about how they are coping with every aspect of their life. Let your child know that you care about them and will always be available when they need you. Show this by devoting your full attention and spending quality one-on-one time regularly. Be patient when listening to your child and ask open-ended questions to create space for dialogue. “Establish open communication with your child before you have any concerns so that if concerns arise, they’re comfortable talking to you about what’s going on,” says paediatric neuropsychologist Dr. Alice Ann Holland. Listening and showing empathy can be extremely comforting when something is bothering a child.

Seek professional help

You can consult a mental health professional—such as a school psychologist, counsellor, therapist or psychiatrist—to discuss your concerns about your child. A specialist may be able to help you identify if your child is dealing with chronic anxiety, coping with a temporary life stressor, exhibiting typical behaviour for their age or showing symptoms of depression. This initial conversation can help guide your decision whether to have your child re-evaluated or go on to pursue treatment such as therapy or medication. A mental health professional can also help your child process their feelings and provide an appropriate diagnosis. Studies have shown that in a majority of cases, therapy is more effective than medication alone when it comes to treating depression in children. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or CBT, is one common type of therapy that research has shown to be effective for the treatment of childhood depression. A doctor may prescribe individual, group or family counselling, and/or medications to help your child recover and feel better.

Help your child feel connected

Involve your child in day-to-day activities by giving them responsibilities that are appropriate to their age and maturity. You can encourage them to help out around the house and do simple chores such as setting the table, folding the laundry or cleaning their room. This will build their sense of empowerment and responsibility. Work together to find something your child enjoys or help them pursue their existing hobbies and interests. Being involved in your child’s life means you are in a better position to notice any behavioural changes that may indicate depression. Encourage your child to build strong and supportive relationships within the family, friends and teachers. Expose them to situations where they can freely interact with others in a safe environment, without feeling overwhelmed.

Stick to a routine

Provide your child with a structured and predictable environment by creating and adhering to daily routines. A routine creates a sense of reassurance and security, especially if your child is dealing with issues. The more your child can anticipate what lies ahead, the better they are equipped to face challenges and expectations. A routine also enables a child to moderate their mood and behaviour in a better way. Start by maintaining a consistent wake-up time, bedtime and mealtimes. Structure your child’s day to include focused time for studies and schoolwork, followed by other activities. While a routine is important, each day does not have to be identical. Make sure your child has ample time to rest, relax and recharge by indulging in activities that help them unwind.

Encourage good habits and a healthy lifestyle

Encourage your child to build a healthy lifestyle by getting regular exercise, spending time with supportive friends, eating healthy food and getting enough sleep. Physical activity can be a good way of managing feelings of depression and anxiety. Also, encourage your child to schedule time with friends who play a positive role their life. Social interactions are important for children to pursue and achieve their developmental goals. Provide your child with wholesome meals and try to limit the intake of junk food as much as possible. Keep a check on the amount of time they spend watching television, playing video games or using the computer. Above all, to inculcate healthy habits in your child, it is important to demonstrate them yourself.

Reinforce your child’s worth

Encourage your child to set realistic goals and follow through with them. Enable them to view temporary problems as obstacles that can be overcome. “Find things that kids are good at and help them develop those skills,” advises child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. David Fassler. Improve your child’s confidence by helping them take part in activities that build on their strengths and push them to try new things. Celebrate your child’s successes and the skills learned along the way. However, it is equally important to praise them for their efforts and not just their achievements. Avoid negative responses such as criticism and ridicule while addressing behavioural issues, since this can increase their risk of anxiety and depression.

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