Health

19 Things To Know If Your Kid Is Dealing With Depression

You guys will get through this together.

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As a parent, there are few things more difficult than seeing your child suffer and not being able to fix it.

Watching your kid deal with depression in particular can leave you feeling helpless and frustrated. But while mental illness might not be something you can make go away, there are things you can do to be supportive and help them get through it.

To help, BuzzFeed Health talked to Stephanie Dowd, Psy.D., clinical psychologist with the Child Mind Institute and Barbara Greenberg, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and co-author of Teenage as a Second Language: A Parent's Guide to Becoming Bilingual. Here are their tips:

1. First things first, make sure your child is getting the help they need.

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If they're exhibiting any of the symptoms of depression, it's really important to have them evaluated by a licensed mental health professional. According to Dowd, the most telling signs to look out for are if they're sad or irritable most of the time, if they've lost interest in the things they normally enjoy, if their grades and motivation have dropped, and if their sleeping or eating habits have changed — whether they're eating and sleeping too much or too little.

Treatment is going to look different for everyone, whether that's therapy, medication, or some combination of the two, but you'll figure it out as you go along. If you don't know where to start, this Parents Guide to Getting Good Care is an invaluable resource that will walk you through all the steps.

2. But also make sure it's on their own terms.

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"There's a chance that they'll be resistant to receiving help, so it's important for you to be on the side of trying to understand your child, meeting them where they are, rather than immediately pushing them into anything," says Dowd. "When that happens with a teen especially, they'll more often try to rebel if they feel as though they're misunderstood."

Instead, ask them about their concerns about seeking help by saying something like, "I can understand why you'd be resistant. Tell me about what you're worried about will happen if you go." Once you have a better understanding, you can work toward a solution together.

"You can also help by having a few initial sessions with two or three therapists so your child has a hand in picking who they feel most comfortable with," says Greenberg.

3. Take the time to acknowledge and validate what they're going through.

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This goes for starting therapy and throughout recovery. Kids often feel like they're not heard or understood by their parents, says Greenberg, so take the time to let them know that you see what a hard time they're having. Something as simple as acknowledging, "Yeah, I can see that you're feeling like crap and that must be so hard," is a tremendous way to give support.

You should also look out for ways you might accidentally invalidate their feelings or make them feel damaged. Think things like giving reasons they should be happy ("Look at this beautiful house we're in and all the opportunities you have!") or stating the obvious ("You're going to fail this class if you don't get it together.") Here are some other common well-intentioned words that might be coming off the wrong way.

4. Always ask permission before offering advice. Otherwise, just listen.

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Because it's really hard to see your child suffering, parents will often jump to problem-solving, says Dowd. The thing with that, though, is it's all about timing — if you jump into offering advice too quickly, your kid won't feel heard. Instead, just concentrate on listening. Ask them how they're feeling and what it's like. Allow them to speak and express themselves.

Then, after you listen, Dowd says you can say something like, "It sounds like this is really, really difficult. I have some thoughts about what might help make it a little better. Do you want my advice on this?"

If they say yes, cool. If not, respect that. You can always say, "OK, I understand. I'm always here to listen or give you advice, whatever you need."

5. Talk with the therapist about how it's going, how you can help, and what you can expect.

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Your kid's therapist can be an invaluable resource to you in figuring out how to be involved and how to navigate the process. "What can be a challenge with children with depression is if parents don't involve themselves in an appropriate way," says Dowd. "Some parents will not involve themselves at all and some will try to involve themselves too much. Parents can get insight on how to strike a balance and how they can support their child outside of therapy from a therapist."

You can also check in with a therapist on what kind of progress your child is making, says Greenberg. A good therapist will have a treatment plan and goals for your child, so they'll also be able to tell you about the progress they're making.

6. But respect your child's privacy, no matter how much you want to know exactly what's going on.

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It's normal to be curious about what your kid talks about in therapy or to think you need all the details to be able to best support them. But there are just some things that your kid isn't going to want to talk about with you, and that's OK. So no badgering a therapist to know what they talk about with them (they won't tell you anyway), no reading journals or texts, and no getting upset when there are things your kid doesn't want to discuss.

"Trust that if you have a good therapist, they'll let you know that your child is safe and making progress, and that's all you need to know," says Greenberg.

7. Be patient with your child and the recovery process.

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One mistake a lot of parents make is expecting their child to change too quickly, says Dowd. Recovery takes time and often has its ups and downs, so keep reasonable expectations.

8. And pay attention to changes in their behavior instead of asking how their recovery is going.

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When your kid is going through treatment, it's understandable that you'd want to know how things are going and if they're feeling better. Watch out that you're not accidentally putting pressure on them to get better quickly by checking in too frequently.

"Instead of asking about their depression and recovery, watch their behavior," says Greenberg. "Are they going out a little bit more? Are they starting to get interested in their usual activities? Is their appetite increasing? You're better off interacting normally and observing so they can do things at their own speed."

9. Celebrate the ways your child is still doing well and thriving.

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"It's really important for parents to catch your child being good and laying out the positives in an otherwise very tough point in their lives," says Dowd. "Say, 'I'm proud of you that in the midst of feeling really down and depressed and irritable that you're still able to go to school' or 'I'm proud that even when feeling a lot of pain and suffering, you're still able to be so kind' or 'I can see that you're trying and I really respect you for that.'"

10. If they tell you they don’t have the energy or the bandwidth or the skills to do something, believe them.

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When you're dealing with depression, some days even getting out of bed is a monumental task. "You never want to assume that your child can do something or that they're lying to get out of responsibilities," says Greenberg. That will only serve to make them feel hopeless or ashamed about the things they're not able to do.

11. But make sure to stay firm on enforcing the rules against negative behaviors just like you normally would.

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It's tricky to know how to be supportive and how to be a parent when the symptoms of depression can often produce negative behaviors. But if you follow the previous two tips (affirming the things your child is doing right and trusting them to know their limits), it becomes a little easier. "It's understandable for parents to notice the negatives when there's disobedience going on," says Dowd. "And so, it's important that parents still provide negative consequences while respecting what their child is going through."

For example, there's a difference between allowing your child a mental health day when they're too depressed to go to school and grounding them when they skip class behind your back. Or if their irritability sparked a fight, you can say something like, "I understand you're going through a hard time, but it's still not OK to speak with me disrespectfully, so you're grounded for a night." It's all about keeping the lines of communication open and the rules firm.

12. Be open to hearing about your role in things and participating in therapy.

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First things first: NOTHING IS YOUR FAULT. Depression comes from a complex interplay of genetics, biology, environment, social experiences, and learned behaviors. Since one of those factors is environment, it might come out that there are triggers at home that you should know about, says Greenberg: changing relationships, financial trouble, bad communication, the mental or physical health of you or your spouse, etc. Whatever it is, be open to hearing about it and learning what you can do to help.

Most therapists will allow or even encourage sessions where the whole family is present — maybe one every few sessions or maybe the second half of every session. Whatever works. View it as something that you all can work through together.

13. Don't compare bad days to good days.

You might get frustrated if your kid had a depressive episode that kept them home from school but then was up to hang out with their friends the next day. But that's how it works sometimes. With depression, there are good days and bad days, and you need to let them take advantage of the good days, says Greenberg. And remember: Good days need to be celebrated, not called into question, so don't say things like, "So you were too depressed to do X, but not Y?"

14. Encourage them to maintain contact with their friends and activities to the best of their ability, but don't push it.

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"The thing to remember is that people who are depressed aren't depressed 24/7. Find pockets where they feel better and encourage them lightly to hang out with friends or do things they used to enjoy and help facilitate," says Greenberg. "Offer to host friends or to drive somewhere."

Of course, if you feel resistance, don't push it. "If you insist your child do something that they can't do emotionally, you'll make them feel worse. It's all about making opportunities available if they can take advantage of them."

15. Make an effort to learn more about depression in general.

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A lot of this can come from listening nonjudgmentally about your kid's experience and being empathetic to their experience, but it never hurts to do some outside research so you have a better understanding of what they're going through. These books about mental illness may be a place to start or these common misconceptions about depression.

16. If you have any personal experience similar to what your child is going through, share it.

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"When kids hear that their parents or other family members have dealt with depression too, they feel less alone, less like a black sheep," says Greenberg. Even if you've never dealt with depression, sharing a time when you went through a hard time emotionally can be very helpful.

"Make a point to note that it's not the same as what they're going through and that you can't know exactly how that feels, but that you're trying to understand," says Dowd. "Say, 'Even if my experience isn't the same as yours, I remember a time when I felt very depressed and I know how difficult that can be.'"

17. Take the time to strengthen your relationship so you're a more effective support system.

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Obviously, you want to have a strong relationship with your child no matter what, but now more than ever, spending one-on-one time together is important, says Greenberg. "Get lunch or coffee or go for a movie and just focus on hanging out. Even if they turn you down, you never want your child to assume you're not available because you don't ask in fear of them saying no. Be present."

18. Practice plenty of self-care and make sure you're getting the help you need too.

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Don't neglect the fact that you might be suffering too! Watching a child deal with depression is an emotional experience — one that can make you feel helpless, frustrated, lost, or even depressed yourself — on top of whatever other stressors you're dealing with in life. "Whatever it is that makes you feel emotionally healthy, do it," says Dowd. Whether that's seeing your own therapist, cooking, pampering yourself, hanging out with your friends, having date nights, etc., make time for it.

19. And lastly, live your life and be a role model for how things do get better.

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Despite what your instincts say, don't let your life revolve around your child's depression and their recovery. Not only can it make your kid feel guilty, but it's very important for them to see what a positive future might look like if they can't imagine one for themselves, says Greenberg.

"Show them that growing up doesn't have to mean you only get more stressed and depressed," says Greenberg. "You still need to have a life. You need to have fun and have relationships and activities. That's great for your child to see. Being a martyr and giving up your sense of self is not good for you or them. With everything you do, you want the child to become more hopeful."

Anna Borges is a health writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Anna Borges at anna.borges@buzzfeed.com.

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