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Tips on Helping Children Cope with Depression

written by: Stephanie Torreno • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 9/15/2010

Childhood is often thought of as a happy time for most young people. Children, however, can suffer from depression, which can interfere with their ability to learn and to function. Read essential information in helping children cope with depression and in promoting recovery from this mood disorder.

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    Children and Depression

    Depression may have once been thought of as a mood disorder only affecting adults, but children can be affected by depression, too. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, approximately 5% of children and teens experience depression at any given time. Children are more likely to be diagnosed with depression if the disorder runs in families, if they suffer a loss or experience another major stressor, or if they have a learning, conduct, or anxiety disorder. While depressed children can have some of the same behaviors as depressed adults, others differ in these children. They include:

    • Frequent sadness, crying, or irritability;
    • Loss of pleasure or interest in favorite activities;
    • Isolation from some, but not all, friends;
    • Helplessness and hopelessness;
    • Unexplained stomach aches and other aches and pains;
    • Feelings of anxiety and turmoil;
    • Major changes in appetite and/or sleeping patterns;
    • Sluggishness and low energy;
    • Difficulty thinking and concentrating;
    • Clinginess or demanding behavior;
    • Disruptive behavior or acting out at school;
    • Self destructive behavior, and;
    • Thoughts of death or suicide.
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    Helping Children Cope with Depression

    Early diagnosis and treatment of children with depression makes a critical difference in recovery. Since antidepressant use in children is controversial and could pose harmful side effects, parents should outweigh the benefits and risks of medication in individual children. Whether medication is used or not, talk therapy has been shown to be effective in helping children cope with depression. Therapy may involve parents and other family members, too.

    Talk therapy involves working with a child psychologist or psychiatrist to help a child challenge negative thought patterns. These thought patterns are believed to contribute to depression. A depressed child should feel comfortable with the therapist and supported as feelings are explored and discussed. Talk therapy focuses on the child’s self-concept and his or her relationships with peers and family. Since a depressed child affects other members of the family, therapists may include parents and siblings in the exploration of the child’s thoughts and feelings. Parents and caregivers should stay involved in treatment and alert the therapist if depression does not lift or worsens.

    Parents should learn all they can about depression. Just as they would research any other disease, the more parents know about depression, the more they will have the ability to help their child. Older children and teens should also be encouraged to read about the condition. Learning about depression will increase understanding of what the child is experiencing.

    Childhood depression will be difficult for parents and caregivers, too. Supporting and listening to your child is more important than ever, though. Parents should do their best to be patient and understanding, and help children with depression feel valued and accepted. Children should be encouraged to share their feelings and have those feelings validated.

    Other tips for helping children cope with depression include encouraging them to stay active with physical exercise. This may be the last activity a depressed child wants to do, but it will do much to relieve the symptoms of depression. Everyday activities, such as waking the dog or riding a bike, will release endorphins, or feel-good hormones. Even better, encourage physical activities with friends. Since isolation only worsens depression, suggest ways to socialize and praise children when they do. If necessary, find a social skills class to promote social abilities and assist children in making new friends.

    Remember, recovery from depression may take a long time and include setbacks. Taking one day at a time and celebrating a child’s small victories will make this difficult time more manageable.

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    Sources

    Smith, M., Barston, S,. and Segal, J. (2010). Teen depression: a guide for parents and teachers. Retrieved September 7, 2010, from www.helpguide.org/mental/depression_teen.htm

    The depressed child. (2008). American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Retrieved September 7, 2010, from aacap.org/page.ww?name=The+Depressed+Child&section=Facts+for+Families