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All parents want their children to be happy. Looking after a child with depression, or any mental illness, can be emotionally challenging for a parent or carer, and it’s important to know the best steps you can take to help a child feel supported and understood.
Remember that different things work for different people, and don’t be afraid to talk to your child’s GP and school to ensure that a strong support network is in place – many parents will feel that they ought to be able to do everything by themselves, but both you and your child will need help and guidance to overcome struggles with mental health. Here are some key things to keep in mind if you think your child may have depression.
Know the symptoms
Many of the symptoms of depression occur in children who are not depressed, too. But when symptoms are seen together and/or frequently, they can be a strong indicator of depression.
Some symptoms of depression include:
• A noticeable change in eating habits and weight gain or loss
• Sleeping very little at night and/or a lot during the day
• Feeling unable to do simple tasks, or constantly lacking energy
• Trouble with focussing at school or at home
• Being sad or irritable frequently, and in some cases without knowing why
• Wanting to be away from family and friends
• Low self-esteem
And the more obvious one, but one you may not know about – frequent thoughts about death and suicide.
Build strong foundations
Good mental health is built on things like eating a healthy diet, regularly getting a good night’s sleep, exercising, and having good relationships with friends and family.
Praising your child for good behaviour and drawing their attention to their strengths can help to boost self-esteem and develop the bond between you. It’s important that your child feels they can talk to you, even if they don’t feel that they want to, so try to engage them in a way that lets them know you’re ready to listen, even if it’s via text or email rather than a face-to-face conversation.
Limiting screen time and encouraging physical activity can help to give children a boost of endorphins, along with promoting a routine that allows for a balanced diet and enough sleep.
Learn and teach coping skills
Nobody knows your child like you do. Pay attention to your child’s strengths, then help them relax through physical or creative activities. If you’re not sure what they’d enjoy the most, the best thing you can do is ask.
Whether your child would benefit most from mindfulness exercises or from playing in the park, communication is the key to supporting someone who is struggling. Try to discuss problems and find ways to see them in a new, more positive light. Help your child to break down tasks and problems into smaller steps that can be tackled gradually, and that will feel more manageable.
Be an advocate in your child’s support network
Even if your child doesn’t want to go to the GP, you can still go to ask questions and seek advice. Explain your concerns and the symptoms you have noticed, and your GP can give you ideas for how best to help and what to do next.
If your child is recommended a course of medicines or therapy, it goes without saying that your support, guidance and encouragement will play a key part in their attitude towards this. Part of this means letting them know that depression is something that affects a lot of people, and not something to be embarrassed or ashamed of.
Lean on friends and family for support, because trying to help someone fight a mental illness can be tiring and hard work. Don’t expect treatment and changes to have an effect right away – it is important to be as patient as possible, and to take advantage of helplines and professional support when you need to.