COVID winter has been hard for all of us. Truthfully, the entire year has been challenging for most of us. That being said, it may be easy to fall into the trap of thinking “everyone’s depressed right now, it’s fine.” While many of us have been affected negatively by pandemic life, there is a difference between feeling down from time to time and being clinically depressed. It’s important as parents not to minimize our children’s feelings, especially if they are sharing vulnerable feelings such as depression. So how do you know if your child is just feeling down versus experiencing depression?
1. Name What Is Happening: Identifying Depression in Your Child(ren)
Everyone experiences a range of emotions and different personalities tend to either internalize or externalize those feelings, especially the feelings we give a negative connotation to like depression, sadness, anger, or fear. First off, it’s important to identify that about your child. How do they express their feelings - especially sadness and anger? Do they tend to act out, become impulsive, explode, or cry? These are external expressions. Do they tend to withdraw, keep to themselves, or grow guarded and defensive? These are internal expressions.
If you’ve noticed that these behaviors or expressions have increased, it’s important to explore other common symptoms of depression. Consider their sleeping and eating patterns. Consider their enjoyment of or desire to do things they usually like. Do you see changes here? Especially if you have teenagers, you may need to pay extra attention or ask questions to get a better sense of how they’re really doing.
A list of depression criteria can feel overwhelming, but choose to see it as an opportunity to name what’s happening so you can help versus a verdict that something is “wrong” with your child. You should be looking for a handful of these symptoms (from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders):
- Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day.
- Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day.
- Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain, or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day.
- A slowing down of thought and a reduction of physical movement (observable by others, not merely subjective feelings of restlessness or being slowed down).
- Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day.
- Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt nearly every day.
- Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day.
- Recurrent thoughts of death, recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide.
It’s important to recognize that depression may not always manifest itself in outward behaviors but rather internal and unexpressed thoughts. Consider patterns of negative or self-deprecating talk from your child. Ask questions to try to gauge how they’re feeling about themselves. It may even be appropriate at times to ask directly “have you been feeling depressed lately?” or “have you ever thought about harming yourself or wishing you weren’t here?”
It’s also possible that pandemic life has caused your child to be more used to “lazing around” the house or even some weight gain with lessened outlets for activity and increased eating out of boredom or increased access. These could be “normal” changes in these circumstances, but consider whether it could be more. Depression often comes in waves, so just because your child seems happy or is laughing one minute doesn’t mean that they’re not experiencing depression. Oftentimes you can pinpoint a reason for your sadness, but depressed feelings feel more ambiguous and often hard to identify what you are feeling down about. Try to discern whether your child is struggling to name what’s got them down versus when they just don’t want to talk about it with you as their parent.
2. Empower Your Child(ren)
If your child is expressing feeling depressed or showing these symptoms, it’s important for you to be a safe place for them. It can feel scary as a parent to name what your child is experiencing as depression because it can feel like a negative reflection on you or on your child. It’s not. Giving depression a name can make it more real, but it can also give you some more tangible steps for how to address it.
3. Ask Questions Instead of Making Assumptions
This is a good rule of thumb for parenting in general, but especially when it comes to your child’s mental health. If you have experienced depression, do not assume your child’s experience with it is the same. Depression can be experienced in different ways, so be curious. Try open ended questions like “what does depression feel like for you?” or “what’s it like to feel so tired and unfocused for you?”
4. Offer Support More Than Advice
Validate how they’re feeling, even if it feels small to you. Remember that their world is smaller than yours, so it’s natural for their problems to be too. Try responding with empathetic statements like “that sounds really hard” or “I’m sorry you’re carrying that right now.” Ask how you can support them instead of offering 12 ideas on how they can stop feeling so sad.
5. Seek Professional Help
If your child is struggling with clinical depression, they need clinical support. Seek a counselor (or help empower your teenager to seek a counselor) that’s a good fit. Consider background, therapeutic style, cost and availability. Tell your child that they don’t have to continue to see someone if it’s not the right fit for them and follow through on that promise.
At some point in your parenting journey, you will likely find yourself telling your child some version of “just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean you have to.” Hold yourself to the same standard. Just because lots of people are struggling with the upheaval in our world doesn’t mean that your child doesn’t need support. Let’s be the kind of parents who champion good mental health and normalize expressing our feelings in healthy ways.
Milestones Counseling has a variety of therapists with different backgrounds and specialities and we’d love to help you find the right one for your child. Give us a call at (443) 574-4295 to set up an appointment today!