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My child is experiencing depression

STEPS TO TAKE DURING AN DEPRESSION-RELATED EMERGENCY: Here are some starting steps to take when your child is experiencing a particularly tough moment with depression. Your child may have feelings or thoughts that have started interfering with how they handle daily routines like sleeping, eating, care or school. For any life-threatening emergencies, call 988 immediately.

  1. Ground your own thinking and heart: seeing a child sink into heavy feelings is hard.
    • Take a minute (or 3) to frame your thinking so your next steps support them and your relationship.
    • Recognize depression:
      • might look like “acting out” behaviors, but is less like misbehaving and more like a physical illness
      • often has brain and physical roots – so it’s not a choice or behavior.
      • Is common and serious and may need professional support sooner rather than later.
  2. Settle with the child: Create a calm, quiet environment where you can simply be together.
    • Try a 2 for 2 first step. Sit together in space for two minutes with your child. Let them know you’ll wait until they are ready to start. 
    • Stay beside them until they are ready – it may take longer or go more quickly – both are okay!
  3. Listen:  This is reflection vs action: you are simply listening and there’s no need to offer a fix.
    • How would you describe the feeling? (Depending on their age, they might use colors, animals, music or toys)
    • When do you know you are starting to feel this way? (They might describe where in their body they feel it.)
    • When did you first notice these feelings?
    • Is there a place or time you always feel this way? (They might give you clues about what’s at the root)
  4. Affirm: Be sure your child knows you’ve heard their feelings and that you are there to support and help.
    • I hear that you are feeling like [their word]. 
    • I understand this is hard. Would you like me to help?
    • This must be hard when [use their word for timing]. How about if we make a plan to help you start to feel better.
  5. Plan.
    • Depression is a clinical diagnosis and is best identified by a clinical provider who can rank the severity and intensity of a child’s need.
    • Major depressive episodes can be confusing, and a professional can help you and your child regain stability and find skills and tools to build healthier patterns.

Is sadness, hopelessness or intense feelings interfering with your child’s daily life and routines?

A child may start to experience depression when they experience an event, a series of events or feeling overwhelmed or hopeless. Depression is manageable and treatable – and nearly always calls for the help of a professional.

What can a caregiver do when their child seems depressed?

Watch for the signs that life’s routines are off track. While the cause may be harder to see – the signals are often clear in daily life:

  • No or low energy 
  • Unable to sleep, waking up very early or sleeping too much
  • Anxiety, irritability, restlessness
  • Using words that show lack of self worth or 
  • Lack of interest and joy in preferred activities
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Moving, talking, or thinking more slowly
  • Forgetting or trouble concentrating
  • Body aches and pains
  • Thoughts or speaking about dying or suicide or self harm

Getting help for someone is particularly critical if these are present for more than two weeks and any have made it difficult to live at home, school or in community. When an adult notices a youth is struggling and shows care it is a major first step. Getting them care quickly is a close second.

If you’ve noticed your child showing some of the signs of depression, here are a few tips:

Start a conversation by noticing and validating their feelings. “I’ve noticed you feeling a little [sad or overwhelmed] lately. I’d like to understand what you’re going through. Would you feel ok to share with me?

Once they open up, affirm and validate. “I can understand where you are coming from. I am ready to  listen and support you.”
Make your support clear and that together you can get help. Kids are less likely to hide feelings if caregivers are supportive and open, not reactive and judgemental.

At times, being present is the best gift a child can receive when they feel like no one will understand and they feel alone. Talking and sharing is important, but unspoken support can be impactful for kids.

Your consistency and calm can create trust and a bridge for a child when they need it most.

How do I know when my kid needs professional support?

Depression is a common and treatable condition. When the depression becomes constant, overwhelming or unrealistic to manage over several days or weeks, it impairs daily routines. When depression and its related symptoms override a child’s ability to approach life, it becomes a serious threat to their health.

If you believe your child is experiencing what sounds like depression or symptoms that day-to-day functioning is at risk, it’s the right time to call for help.

What if I fear my child is thinking about suicide or self-harm?

Let’s start by debunking the myth:
It is okay to check in with someone and ask if they are having suicidal thoughts or if they have a created a plan to do so. That gives you information to get them help. If they answer yes, to either get immediate help through your county’s crisis line or 988. If there is immediate danger, call 9-1-1.

It can be hard to find the words or “right way” to talk about or ask your child about suicide; yet it is a proven tool for prevention.
So, what’s a good way to approach it with your child or teen? Every child is different and you know your child best. Most will respond when you are upfront, compassionate and clear with your questions.

Start the conversation by asking: “I’m worried about you. Have you been having thoughts about wanting to die or killing yourself?” If your child doesn’t respond, keep asking and talking about suicide it will not cause them to commit suicide but instead can prevent it.

“The second leading cause of death for young people ages 10-20” in the state of Minnesota is Suicide (Minnesota Department of Health, 2019).
There are multiple factors that contribute to an “increase of suicidal thoughts and behaviors, such as childhood trauma and adversity, serious mental illness, physical illness, alcohol or other abuse, a painful loss, exposure to violence, social isolation, and easy access to lethal means” (Minnesota Department of Health, 2019) along with experiencing oppression, historical trauma, and culture genocide.

It is important to know though that having any or multiple of these risk factors does not automatically mean that a child has suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Suicide is preventable, treatment is available, and there is hope.

Note: This information should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of a mental health condition. Call 612-871-1454 to learn more about Washburn Center’s mental health services for children