Depression is more than just occasional bouts with feeling blue — it is the number one mental health problem in America. Annually, depression negatively impacts the lives of 17 million members of the population from all walks of life, and out of every 33 children, one is likely to be suffering from an episode of clinical depression. Teenagers are even more at risk, with approximately one in eight suffering from the disorder.
How can parents broach the subject of depression with their children? As with most thorny subjects, age is a factor that must be considered.
For parents of children age six to 11, observe how your child reacts to a major event such as the death of a beloved pet or a grandparent, or even having a close friend move away. Low moods and sadness are a normal reaction to upsetting events in a child’s life, but over time, children should be able to shake it off and move through the episode. All kids process sad life events according to their own timetables, but parents know their children best. If you feel that their funk has gone on too long, ask some gentle, probing questions. Ask how they feel about the loss, how they are coping. Never trivialize their feelings about the matter, as this is the quickest way to slam the communication doors between you.
Remember that younger children may lack the ability to put their feelings into words, so be on the lookout for nonverbal clues to their moods. Acting out aggressively toward friends or siblings, irritability and regressive behaviors can all be masking an underlying depression that can destabilize their day-to-day lives.
Most adolescents from 12 to 15 deal with normal teen angst on an average day, but if you feel that your child is slipping from your grasp and sliding into the morass of depression, it’s important for them to realize you are a lifeline for them. Communication is essential, so make sure that you remain available to them when they need to talk, at their convenience. At this age, break-ups and ostracism from peer groups are common catalysts for depressive episodes, so make sure to refrain from flippant comments like, “There are more fish in the sea.” At this point in their lives, the boyfriend or girlfriend or clique is the center of their universe, so it’s not effective to downplay their importance in your child’s life.
Ask your children to come up with one or more potential coping strategies to help lift them out of their sadness. A child who loves dance might cope better after some time spent at the barre, while an outdoorsy kid might find a weekend camping trip or a day hiking or playing in the woods to be uplifting. These excursions also can give you some one-on-one time to explore their feelings with you.
Older teens and young adults from 16 to 20 should have the communication skills to verbalize their distress, but they also may have developed intricate ways to mask their true feelings to the world. Think of your older child as an onion with many layers that must be gently peeled away. Discussing depression outright can shut them down before the conversation even starts, so approach them indirectly and see if you can get them to lower their guard to reveal their true self and worries. Show them through actions and words that they are loved, respected and valued.
Because depression tends to run in families, it can be helpful to share your own or other family members’ personal experiences battling depression with children of this age. Discuss which techniques and treatments were effective, and offer to help them seek treatment themselves if they are willing to go. Above all, remain supportive and approachable so they always know they can turn to you for help.