How to Cope when your Child or Teen is Depressed

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It has become recognized that it isn't just adults who can get depression.   More children and teens are being diagnosed with this mood disorder than ever.    How many children and teens suffer from depression?    Rachele Kanigel in her article entitled, "Depression in Children and Teenagers" cites this statistic: "Roughly 7 percent of all children are depressed, studies show, including 2 percent of children in grade school and 5 percent of adolescents."

And if you have a teen with depression the current literature (Teen  says that the majority of these teens will go on to have another episode of depression before adulthood and that these episodes can last as long as 8 months.

This can be a particularly difficult time not only for the child but for the parents who must find ways to both help themselves through this tumultuous time and also help their child.   One of the differences between adult depression and depression among children and teens is that the predominant symptom among depressed children and teens may not be sadness.  Doctor Stephen Faraone, discusses this difference in his book, "Straight Talk about Your Child's Mental Health":   "Also, the main mood disturbance seen in depressed adults is typically sadness.   For children it is irritability."   So the child or teen suffering from a Major Depressive Episode may act out behaviorally in lashing out at others both verbally and even physically.   Or on the other hand they may remain isolative and show very little interest in connecting with anyone.   The depressed child or teen may resist your efforts to help him or her and appear sullen and angry. They may quit doing activities that they once showed interest in and academic performance may decline.   They may express feelings of worthlessness and even of wishing to harm themselves.   Some children and teens may even try drugs and alcohol as a way to deal with their pain.   It is a grand understatement to say that these sorts of behaviors are extremely difficult to both witness and deal with in your child.

(For a complete list of diagnostic criteria for childhood and teen depression please refer to the American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV-TR. 4th ed. rev. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association)

If you are the parent or caretaker of a child or teen suffering from depression you may find that your own mental health may take a toll.   Your patience may wear thin as your efforts to help may be rebuked.   You may wonder if you have the emotional stamina to survive this time with your child.   And you are not alone.

So what can a parent do to cope?

  • You don't have to deal with this alone. Talk to your child's pediatrician, therapist, or school to come up with ideas of how to best help your child. Talking to your own therapist or counselor is also very beneficial as well as joining a support group for parents who have children suffering from mood disorders.

  • Set aside time to communicate with your child free of pressure or judgment. Ask open ended questions which will encourage your child to talk more such as "Can you tell me more about how you are feeling?" or even "What would you like to talk about?"
  • Dr. Nathan Naparstek in his book, "Is your Child Depressed?" talks about the importance of promoting positive thoughts. He suggests that you encourage your child to write down one positive thing he or she did that day. This author also condones helping your child to brainstorm about seeking multiple solutions to problems instead of allowing your child to give up in frustration by declaring that nothing will work.
  • Schedule some alone time for you and your spouse or with a friend. A much needed break can rejuvenate you so that you do not become emotionally overwhelmed and burned out.
  • If you are feeling that you may react to your child's behaviors with anger or frustration take a time out for yourself. Go into another room, count to ten slowly, take some deep breaths, and then you can better think about how to respond.

  • Create a list with your child of stressors in his or her environment and then brainstorm ways to deal with these stressors.

  • Create another list of fun or relaxing activities. Give him or her something to look forward to doing in the future.

  • Pick and choose your battles. Doctor Ross Greene, the author of "The Explosive Child" makes a visual analogy of three different baskets. Basket A is for problems you can let go of which do not involve inconvenience or safety issues. In other words, all the little power struggles which don't matter in the end. Basket B is for conflicts which may cause inconvenience or distress such as getting up on time for the school bus so that mom doesn't have to drive the child to school. Basket C is for issues pertaining to safety and moral values including stealing, cutting classes, and using drugs. Sometimes, as parents we utilize all our energy on all the small issues so that we have very little energy left for the conflicts and problems which really matter.

  • Spend time together as a family. Have a movie or game night where the goal is to have fun together. Let your child who has depression know that you still want to spend time with them.

These are but some coping strategies of dealing with your child's depression.   I would encourage any of you to add to this list so that we can better assist those who are in the same boat.   We are all in this together.