Coping with emotions is part of life. Everyone feels happy and sad at different times. Feeling sad can be a natural and appropriate response to what is happening in our lives. Time, life changes and the support of those around us help these feelings go away.
Depression is when sadness doesn’t go away; when they overwhelm a person and stop them from doing the things they would normally do. Depression affects thoughts, mood, behaviour and how we see ourselves and our future. Along with feeling sad or irritable, it may seem that nothing is worthwhile and that things will never get better. It can also stop children from enjoying the things they had previously enjoyed.
What to expect from your child?
Children and adolescents are not mini-adults. Irritability, feeling overwhelmed, and outbursts are common in depressed children. They are developing and changing at a rapid pace, even when they experience a depressive episode. As such, you might find that the depression seems to improve, only to notice a relapse a few days later.
Depression is a serious medical condition that can negatively affect a child’s ability to connect with friends and family, enjoy normal daily activities, attend school and concentrate, as well as enjoy childhood.
What to expect in terms of academics?
It’s difficult to perform well in tasks and tests when thinking and concentration abilities are impaired by depression. Some homeschooling accommodations might benefit your child during this time, such as:
- Allowing extended time for lengthy assignments and tests
- Breaking down assignments into manageable pieces (this is particularly helpful for children who appear ‘overwhelmed’)
- Helping to create study or homework schedules
- Taking tests in a quiet and distraction-free environment
What can the parent do?
If you have noticed that your child does not seem themselves, the first step is to talk about what’s going on and how they are feeling. As hard as this can be for the parent on the receiving end of these behaviours, you must remain calm and focus on active listening. It’s a natural tendency to want to ‘fix it’ or somehow put a stop to it, but mental illness is complicated. It cannot be fixed or stopped. It can, however, improve. With proper treatment and support systems in place, your child can thrive and enjoy childhood once again. Here are some ideas on how to help a child manage their depression:
- Let your child know that it’s okay to ask for help and that you’re ready to listen to whatever they want to say.
- If they are distressed about a particular situation, you can help them to solve the problem or ﬁnd solutions to improve the situation.
- Quality time is also essential. You can do something fun, go outside and get some exercise, or do something special together.
Seeking professional support
Children, especially teenagers, go through various phases. Often a lot of mood swings and emotional episodes occur, which is associated with adolescence, and it can be hard to know when their behaviour is a part of growing up and when it is more serious.
If your child’s change of mood is very severe or goes on for a few weeks without improving, it is time to act. Do not leave it and assume things will get better on their own.
Some children also have suicidal thoughts. If your child talks about taking their own life or hurting themselves, it is important to take this very seriously. Children occasionally use this as a way of describing their distress rather than an intention to harm themselves – either way; they need urgent support.
Seeking help early for your child is the best thing you can do. Proper diagnosis and treatment are vital but working through depression requires time and patience as it could include relapses. It helps to know what to expect during the process and when to seek additional help.
The first step towards helping your child battle depression is to learn how to spot it. Become familiar with the warning signs:
- Low self-esteem
- Social and emotional withdrawal
- Lack of interest
- A decrease in marks
- Changes in behaviour (irritability) and acting younger than their age (regression)
- Drastic changes in eating habits (too little or too much)
- Feeling guilty and ashamed
- Lack of energy and motivation
- Feeling tired all the time (fatigue) for no medical reason
- Suicidal thoughts and thoughts about death
If your child is experiencing one or a combination of these symptoms, they may need professional help. Consult a counsellor or psychologist to help your child work through this difficult time.
Dr Jeanné Roux