How to Support Your Child with Depression

It’s hard seeing someone you love deal with depression. I know from experience – when you love someone, you want them to be happy. To be smiling and laughing. To live their lives with joy and pride. And when they get hurt, you want to help them heal – and when someone hurts them, you get angry. But depression is an invisible force, strong and oppressive. And no matter how hard you work, there’s only so much you can ever do to help your loved one. The rest of you has to watch the pain and comprehend the thoughts, and find a way through it all, answering questions you’d never want to hear, and feeling frustration.

Being depressed is a horrible experience. Watching someone struggle with depression unable to take it away from them can be bad, too. But your words still have meaning, and your actions still matter. You can help and support your child, now and forever. With the right treatment and the right approach, your presence can keep your child alive, and even help them smile again. The first thing you need to do is know what your child is dealing with – and then you need to get informed. Learning as much as you can about depression and your child’s thoughts and experiences is critical.

Know What Kind of Depression It Is

Depression is misunderstood – and rightly so. There has been no shortage of confusing and conflicting information on the topic of depression, and the clinical verbiage around the subject is difficult to penetrate from a lay person’s perspective. Many people think of depression as a single disease, or a mood. Some see depression as a symptom, others believe all cases of depression occur when the brain malfunctions.

All these statements include a grain of truth. Depression most commonly refers to MDD, or major depressive disorder. This is condition that affects about 6.7% of the American adult population, disproportionately affecting teens and women. Major depressive disorder is diagnosed through the severity of the depression, rather than the cause. Causes come in many shapes and sizes, although generally speaking, most severe depressions involve either other mental disorders, neurochemicals or hormone issues regarding mood regulation, while mild depressive symptoms are often caused by stress or lifestyle choices. Again: this is not always true.

Think of depression as a spectrum, with less severe cases on one side, and more severe cases on another. Everything within the spectrum of depression is considered destructive enough to count as a disorder – the goal is not to diagnose sadness, but to diagnose the kind of sadness that it unusually prominent and often crops up for no reason at all. Sadness is an emotion felt in response to something sad. Depressive episodes do not require triggers, and can go off for any number of reasons, even at times when a person should arguably be at their happiest.

From severe manic depression to MDD, dysthymia, PMD and more, depression comes in many different forms based on how and when it’s triggered, what affects it, and its severity. Knowing how and why your child is depressed can help you better understand how to help.

Talk to a Professional

Do not attempt to diagnose your child alone, or through a knowledgeable friend. Seek out a professional. It’s not easy to determine whether someone has depression or is going through temporary sadness, and diagnostic methods involve a mixture of self-reporting and physical tests. Professionals will ask questions about a patient’s lifestyle, habits, moods, and behaviors, observing and taking notes. Everything from eating habits and weight loss/gain to a blood test will help a mental health professional reach a conclusive diagnosis.

Other things professionals watch out for include speech habits, slowed body movements, pacing, sighing, and peculiarities in a person’s way of talking (making frequent self-deprecating comments and exhibiting very low self-esteem). Many parents intuitively know when their child is going through something difficult, but only a professional can help diagnose what it might be, and how it might have started.

From there comes the hard part – figuring out a treatment process. Depending on several factors, doctors and therapists will often recommend antidepressants for cases of severe depression, where suicidal ideation is common. However, pills alone won’t do the trick – lifestyle changes, coupled with changes at home, as well as therapeutic ways to relieve symptoms are all part of a complete treatment package. Some people don’t respond well to medication, but do enjoy therapy, and find it helps them keep depression at bay. Others find self-help books and tips useful, while many find them only fleetingly helpful, if at all. It may also take time to find the right kind of medication for your child, as there are several kinds of antidepressants, and several brands per kind.

Treating underlying conditions may also be key to eliminating depressive symptoms. A disease that affects hormone production, such as hypothyroidism, can cause depression. For women, problems affecting their cycle can also cause severe mood swings and depression as part of the usual premenstrual symptoms. Many other diseases, infections and deficiencies could be factors for a major depression, which is why visiting a professional is not only a matter of getting a better view of your child’s symptoms but taking their full medical history under advisement for a more accurate picture of the mind and the body. An internet diagnosis or online test is not enough – get a clearer view of what your child is facing.

Discuss Treatments with Your Child

If your child is a minor, then you are in charge of making medical decisions for them. Including your child in the treatment process is important. Don’t make decisions about your child’s mental health behind their back – just as you want to better understand the way forward, so do they need to understand that there’s hope, and that you’re going to do everything you can to help them.

A lot of treatment relies on the patient enjoying therapy and reacting favorably to their meds. All antidepressants have side effects, but how these side effects manifest is usually a matter of complex genetic and environmental factors. One drug may make patient A nauseous, while working just fine with patient B. Patient B, on the other hand, develops sexual dysfunction on patient A’s medication.

Aside from SSRIs, which are the most common type of antidepressant, there are others to consider – such as RIMAs (a powerful type of antidepressant which temporarily keeps certain chemicals in the brain from oxidizing), or SNRIs (antidepressants that expand on SSRIs, to increase the amount of noradrenaline in the brain). Patients need to give their doctors detailed feedback to help in the selection of the right medication, and the right therapies.

Be open and honest with your child and encourage them to do you the same courtesy. Take care to listen to what they say, rather than telling them how they should feel. Treatments that usually work might not work for you, so rather than being frustrated, take the information to heart and move onto something else.

Keep Them Healthy

It’s easy to feel powerless when your very own child needs help but can’t get better solely through your own efforts. But don’t underestimate just how much you can do to help your child through their depression. Simply being there every step of the way and being as understanding as possible is a massive help. As a parent, you are ultimately one of your child’s biggest and most important therapists – which is why it is crucial to understand as much about their condition as possible.

Another way in which you can shape their treatment is by handling their lifestyle choices. Make healthier choices for yourself and your family and include them in those choices. Consider taking your child jogging or dancing or going out on hikes and trips to parks/through nature more frequently. Vacation out in a camping spot or by a lake, if time and resources permit. Consider eating healthier, not for weight loss or weight gain but to promote a healthier body, clearer skin, and general emotional as well as physical wellbeing. Don’t push your child to exercise or diet for their figure, but to move for fun, embrace food as a source of energy, turn cooking into a game rather than a chore.

There will be days when your child won’t want to do anything. Pushing them to get out of bed to stick to a schedule can be helpful on some days, but not always. There are times when it’s important for your teen to pull themselves out of bed, even if it takes hours – and there are days when it’s best to give them the day off. Context matters and knowing when to push and how much to push is a skill that takes time and failure. This is why it’s critical to maintain a healthy parent-child relationship and communicate often.

Take Care of Yourself

Don’t let the depression pull you in, too. If you’re helping your child, it’s normal to feel obliged to be a rock, and ignore all your own problems. But if you let them fester, then it will turn into much more than you can ever handle. Find the time to deal with your own stress and your own problems – and seek help if you’re struggling to do it all alone. Don’t be afraid or ashamed – there’s nothing wrong with getting help, even as you’re helping someone else.