How to help a child with depression

Health Agenda
Mental Health

How to help a child with depression

When a child is suffering from severe stress, anxiety or depression, parents and carers can feel powerless. So how can families help a child with depression?

As a parent, it’s tough to watch a child struggling, whether it’s learning how to tie their laces or ride a bike, or facing a problem or scary exam.

Sometimes we have to stand back and let them work it out for themselves. Other times, it’s essential we step in.

A child who’s struggling with depression needs help, support and understanding to start feeling, and getting, better.

And there are things parents and carers can do at home to help with depression.

If your child is dealing with depression, they may be referred to a therapist or counsellor – and it’s essential you get involved, too.

“The child isn’t in isolation,” says psychologist Rita Princi-Hubbard. “Talking therapy needs to involve the whole family. Teachers can also be involved. It’s a holistic approach.”

Here are 4 ways you can help a child with depression:

1. Pay attention to your child’s emotions and behaviour

While it’s understandable and often justified to dismiss children acting out as them “just being kids”, Rita suggests if your child is seeking attention through extreme behaviours or emotional outbursts, it may be down to something more.

“Pay attention to your child’s emotions,” says Rita. “If they’re seeking attention, they might just need some. Children need to know they exist. They need to be seen, heard and loved, and to know they’re important.”

2. Give your child behaviours to model

The part of the brain which teaches us how to behave in tough situations or deal with big feelings doesn’t stop developing until the age of about 25. This is why children can often have a more extreme reaction to situations than adults.

Letting your child see how you cope with feelings, such as sadness, can teach them how to behave when they have similar feelings. “Validate your feeling and name it, and then say what you’re going to do to feel better,” says Rita.

This might be something like, “I’m feeling really sad today. When I feel sad, I don’t feel like going to work or doing any of the things I usually enjoy. But I know if I watch a movie with you or go for a walk, I’m going to feel much better.”

3. Take time to talk about your child’s feelings

Life gets busy and, even when we have the best of intentions, it can be hard to find moments to talk to our children. But it’s essential, especially if your child is dealing with depression or some big, challenging emotions.

“Talk to your kids, ask them what’s happening and how they feel. Ask them what they want to do to try to feel better. Validate and recognise how they’re feeling and give them time to talk about it,” says Rita, who advises against having a heart-to-heart at bedtime.

“Choose a time when you’re not all trying to get to sleep. Dinnertime can be a great time to talk about the day and work out some tricky stuff.”

If your child is reluctant to talk, take the spotlight off them. One way to do this is to ask everyone at the table about their day, perhaps getting them to recall one good thing, and one challenging thing.

Allowing a child to see their parents have good and bad parts to their day can help to normalise their experiences, and lets them see you working through tough feelings or situations.

4. Be honest with your child

If something is happening at home – perhaps a parent has lost their job, someone is unwell, or a marriage is breaking down – don’t pretend nothing is wrong.

Children are extremely perceptive and can pick up on small signs something is off. Ignoring their concerns may cause them to think the worst or even blame themselves, which are both symptoms of depression.

“Tell your kids what’s going on in language appropriate for their age,” says Rita. “Reassure them even though things may feel different, you still love them and you’re doing your best.”

It’s important to remember being honest with children about a tough situation isn’t the same as burdening them with problems they can’t solve.

“Children aren’t your counsellors or sounding boards,” says Rita. “Engage with them, but have safe boundaries. If you’re having issues, find an adult to talk to.”

Help for a child with depression and their families

If you’re concerned about your child’s mental wellbeing, we have useful tools and resources for the whole family.

HCF members with hospital or extras cover have access to Calm Kid Central*, an online educational and support program to help kids aged 4-11 learn to act bravely and confidently, behave in positive ways, develop good friendships and manage tough life situations.

There is also access to a range of mental health support, such as psychology telehealth consultations with PSYCH2U for eligible HCF members^ and online programs through This Way Up, a not-for-profit initiative developed by experienced psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, to help you take control of your mental wellbeing.

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Where to find extra help for kids’ mental health support:

Words by Kerry McCarthy
Updated October 2021

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