Parenting A Child with Depression

Jennifer L. Shoenfelt, MD
Board Certified Child, Adolescent, and Adult Psychiatrist, Lindner Center of HOPE
Assistant Professor, University of Cincinnati, College of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience Assistant Professor, Wright State University, Boonshoft School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry

Depression is on the rise in American teens and young adults. Adolescent girls, in particular, seem to be the most vulnerable youth, according to recent research published online in the Journal of Pediatrics.  Data collected between 2005 and 2014, analyzed by the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, concluded that “the 12 month prevalence of major depressive episodes in adolescents increased from 8.7% in 2005 to 11.3% by 2014”.  This number rose from 4.5% to 5.7% in boys and 13.1% to 17.3% in girls. The reasons for this increase remain under discussion. However, cyber bullying has been hypothesized as one trigger, particularly for girls.

How does a parent know when and where to seek help? How can parents support their child or adolescent suffering from depression? Here are some general guidelines for getting started.

  1. Observe your child’s behavior for idiosyncrasies or changes. Children with depression may demonstrate low mood, irritability, anger, fear or anxiety, mood swings, disruptive or risk-taking behavior, disobedience/defiance/ illegal behavior, isolation, lack of self-care/hygiene, decreased interest in previously enjoyable activities, decreased energy, increased or decreased sleep, increased or decreased appetite, and changes in friendships or family relationships. Some children turn to drugs or alcohol. Others turn to the internet for support or socialization. School performance may deteriorate, or attendance may decrease due to physical complaints or blatant truancy. Some children engage in self-harming behaviors or talk of death and dying.
  2. Engage your child in daily conversation or other one- on -one activity to open lines of communication.  Gently ask questions about your child’s change in mood, daily life and issues or how he or she is getting along with others. Find novel ways, if necessary, for your child to communicate his or her feelings. This may include sharing a journal that you pass back and forth or quantifying your child’s mood with a “mood scale” (0= severe depression and suicidal thinking versus 5 = happy mood/doing well) or even sharing “emojis” reflecting how the child is feeling that day. If your child expresses suicidal thoughts, such as not wanting to live or wishing he or she were dead, talks about ending his or her life, or engages in writing suicide notes – please take them directly to the local emergency room for further psychiatric evaluation.
  3. Talk to your pediatrician or family doctor about your child’s mood or changes in behavior. Consult with your child’s teachers or school counselor. Talk to your minister, priest, or rabbi. Arrange timely assistance for your child, perhaps through your Employee Assistance Program or through your health insurance. These professionals can assist you in finding a qualified mental health professional to provide evaluation and counseling.
  4. Monitor and limit phone, computer and electronics time. Know with whom your child is communicating. Watch internet history, cellphone texting, and social media communications. Kids looking for support often look in the wrong places and meet the wrong people while there.
  5. Encourage a healthy and consistent sleep schedule.  Children and teens need about 8-10 hours of sleep per night. A regular pre-sleep routine that does not include electronics and enhances relaxation along with a scheduled bedtime and wake-up time are all tenets of a healthy sleep habit.
  6. Encourage healthy eating habits. Limit sodas, caffeine, sugar- laden foods and snacks. If your child is not eating regular meals or portions, encourage smaller, more frequent meals of healthy foods throughout the day. Observe aberrant behaviors at meals, such as restricting caloric intake, leaving the table immediately after eating to go to the restroom and diverting food by hiding it or throwing it away. Observe striking weight loss, excessive exercising, or obsessive concerns with body image that may indicate concern for an eating disorder.
  7. Be consistent and firm with limit setting. Some parents feel badly for their child with depression and feel they should relax limits or house rules to decrease perceived stress on the child with depression. They fear being too strict or harsh. Maintain the same or even slightly more stringent rules with your child to maintain structure and avoid singling out the child with depression. Treat all children in the family equally. Be aware of your child’s whereabouts and safety at all times.
  8. Safety- proof your home. Lock up all medications, even over- the -counter medications, and seemingly harmless remedies. Secure anything in the home that could be used as a weapon, particularly firearms. Remove firearms from the home entirely. Secure alcohol or remove it from the home entirely.
  9. Ensure that you are taking care of your own well-being and mental health. Depression can run in families. If you, as the parent, are struggling with your own mental health, it will be difficult to remain objective and supportive toward your child, who is also struggling. It may also make identifying your child’s depression more difficult or impossible. Resist the urge to tell your child that you know how they must feel or that you were once depressed or are currently depressed. Avoid trying to give advice or sharing how you have battled your own depression.

Practice listening attentively and reassuring your child that you will get them whatever help is needed for them to feel better and return to a healthy, happy life. Be sure to get help for yourself, such as therapy or medication or both. This will assist you in being the best possible support for your child and family.

Identifying child and adolescent depression and dealing with it can be overwhelming. The key is to reach out for assistance and allow others to provide their support and expertise, so that a team approach can be utilized to its fullest. Organizations such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the American Psychiatric Association are all excellent sources of information and support.

Mojtabai R, Olfson M, Han B. National trends in the prevalence and treatment of depression in adolescents and young girls. Pediatrics. 2016; doi: 10. 1542/peds.2016-1878.
Glowinski AL, D’Amelio G. Depression is a deadly growing threat to our youth: time to rally. Pediatrics. 2016; doi:10.1542/peds.2016-2869.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Your Adolescent. 1999. 301-304.