Heartstrings and Healing: Strategies for Parents in Empowering Their Children Against Depression


It’s heartbreaking when you find out your loved ones are struggling with depression. Even more so if it’s your children. One wonders what events in their life lead to this or how long they have been struggling with the feeling of sadness inside them.

It’s rare for children to be diagnosed with depression. As a parent, you always want the best for your young ones, but how can you provide that if you don’t know anything about their condition? Thus, this article will be your practical guide to communicating and attending to your depressed children, helping you answer the question, “How to help my child with depression?”

Understanding childhood depression

Cases of depression in children aren’t as common as it is in adults, so much so that there’s a misconception that this condition is exclusively an adult disorder. Thus, spotting signs of depression in children is different than in adults.

What exactly is depression?

Survivors usually describe depression as something that descended seemingly out of the blue. It produces persistent sadness, emptiness, helplessness, and sometimes even hopelessness. 

The American Psychological Association provides a more practical definition of depression: an extreme feeling of sadness or despair that lasts more than days. Everyone could feel sad many times throughout their life (including children), but what sets depression apart is that the feelings of sadness persist over time and seem never to leave.

It’s rare for children to be diagnosed with depression. According to a Center for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) survey, 4,4% or approximately 2.7 million children aged 3-17 years old in the USA are diagnosed with depression. However, depression in children has shown a surge in numbers after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another survey from the CDC also found that the leading cause of death in youth aged 10-24 years is suicide. This number showed that children’s mental health is at an all-time low post-pandemic, and neglecting it will lead to worsening symptoms into adolescence and young adulthood.

Signs and symptoms

Everyone experiences sadness sometimes. Typically, this is a body response to unmet goals or dashed expectations. But such reactions tend to be short-lived. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorder, 5th edition, when one is depressed, feelings of sadness and emptiness (which are major telltales of depression disorder) are unrelenting and persist for more than two weeks. 

Some common symptoms of depression in children include:

  • Children feel the following emotions more than usual: crankiness, irritability, anger, sadness, and anxiousness.
  • Behave in unusual ways, such as:
    • Not wanting to do things they usually enjoy or avoiding participation in activities with friends
    • Being angry and more impulsive
    • Experience a drop in school performance or not doing as well as they usually do
    • Losing appetite or suddenly binging food
    • Having a hard time concentrating
    • Experience physical pains without prior health-hazard issues: stomach ache, headache, muscle pains, and tiredness
    • Changes in sleeping habits

If your children exhibit some of the symptoms above for more than 2 weeks, or if the symptoms above lead to disruption in your child’s usual home or school life, then it’s best to take up the issue with your child’s doctor.

However, keep in mind that this article only refers to what depression could look like and provides a practical guide to communicating with children in such a diagnosis. Only mental health care professionals and doctors can give a proper diagnosis for depression. 

Differentiating between typical behavior and depression 

Due to its common misconception, depression in children often goes untreated and persists into adulthood. The telltale signs of persistent anger and irritability are more common in children and teens. Furthermore, younger children have trouble describing their feelings, while teens usually opt to hide their emotional pain, fearing judgment from others.

All children feel low or sad sometimes, it’s a natural part of growing up. However, these are a few signs you need to watch out for in case your child’s sadness becomes maladaptive:

  • Your family just lost a member or relative.
  • Your family just experienced a traumatic experience.
  • Your children showed a drastic change in behavior and school performance.
  • Your family experienced a turbulent change financially.
  • You just recently moved to a new neighborhood.
  • Your children often report unexplainable physical pain, such as headaches, stomachaches, etc.
  • Your children might spend time in their bedroom more often rather than playing with friends they like.

Read more: Weathering the Storm: Navigating the Impact of Disasters on Families and Building Family Resilience 

Communicating with a depressed child

Verbalizing their emotions does not come easy for everyone — especially for children who are still learning to regulate their emotions.  Some children find it difficult to convey what it is exactly that has been bothering them. Hence parents need to take the first initiative.

Tips for nurturing trust and understanding

Younger children tend to be open to communicating about their feelings, but your children tend to be more closed off. Try this approach to them:

Gently find out what’s happening

Try not to be too pushy, or children will back away from expressing their feelings. Instead, wait for your children to be open to you and ask them about which situation they often feel sad.

Listen carefully to what they’re saying

Listen to your children until they finish, then you can ask more questions. Do not interrupt or try advising unless they ask for it. 

Ask people you trust or are often around your child

This could be a favorite teacher, nanny, or close friend. Ask if they’ve noticed anything that might be worrying or different than usual about your child.

Practical strategies for parental support

Depression is a condition caused by many factors and could present in various ways. With it being categorized as a mood disorder in DSM-5, one of depression’s main characteristics is persistent feelings of downward sadness or emptiness.

Depression is not an attitude or just a phase where one can “control” or “get up” from. The person who experienced it needs a little bit more compassion and effective treatment, which is why it’s important to build a supportive support system starting at home. 

Creating a supportive home environment

Talking to someone with depression could feel like you are always walking on eggshells to protect them.  Here are some tips on what can you say to your little ones who might be depressed:

  • Encourage open and positive communication: Try to listen and pay attention to their gestures (in case they’re overwhelmed). Be patient and do not interrupt or cut them off.
  • Children need validation for their problems: Many survivors of depression often feel scared to ask for help because they’re afraid of being judged or dismissed. Always try to be compassionate when talking with your children and validate their feelings of frustration, sadness, or even anger. 

Encouraging health habits and activities

A healthy body is a healthy mind, so the saying goes. While not a cure-all, encouraging healthy habits in your children can boost their physical and mental health. Here are a few tips.

  • Encourage healthy sleep: Sleep disturbance is one of the risk factors for developing depression in children. Especially for children, sleep plays a pivotal role in shaping children’s emotional well-being and their coping mechanism.
  • Encourage physical activities: Other than sleeping habits, researchers also find that physical exercise could alleviate some symptoms of depression in children and adolescents. Make physical exercise an activity to spend together with your child.
  • Manage medication (if there’s any): Sometimes, children need medication for more severe depression. Always consult with your children’s doctor and mental health care professional regarding the usage of medication and its side effects before giving it to your children. 
  • Cook healthy and nutritious meals: A poor-quality diet lacking in folate, zinc, and magnesium is associated with depressive disorders. Providing food with enough nutrition could help children manage their treatment process and promote a healthier lifestyle. 

Read more: Unlocking the Power of Sleep: Addressing Irregular Bedtimes for Healthy Child Development 

Fostering a healthy coping mechanism

Unfortunately, you can’t always protect your children from stress forever. Therefore, what you can do is to be role models for them on how you face your stress.

This has been proven by a cognitive theory of depression that suggests the development of children’s negative coping and thinking patterns when faced with stressful situations are learned from early interactions with caregivers. Thus, changes have to start from the roots — you could start from little habits. 

  • Model positive behavior: When faced with a stressful situation, try to be patient and do not instantly lash out or freak out. 
  • Teach emotional and coping management: Teach your children how to solve problems and manage their emotions healthily.
  • Engage your children in activities: Start a talk or activity during or after dinner to engage your children in communication within the family. Don’t let your children ever feel left out of the family.
  • Involve your children in building a routine: Start a routine, stick to it, and ask your children to participate. Encourage open discussion about activities that your children enjoy and get to know them together with your children. 

Collaboration with schools and professionals

As a parent, you can’t always keep a watch on your children. Some early symptoms of depression could be traced back to your children’s school performance – their interaction with teachers and peers. Tracking your children’s progress in school by communicating with their teacher can give you more context into your children’s situation in school.

Besides keeping an update from your child’s teacher, you can also seek advice from your child’s doctor regarding some concerning behavior or signs.

Involving teachers and school staff

Parents could work together with teachers and school staff to promote more connectedness towards school for children. This sense of belongingness promotes mental health and also prevents them from engaging in risky behavior. As a parent, here are a few things you can do:

  • Get to know your children’s teacher as early as possible – foster open communication about your children’s well-being and progress in class.
  • Closely monitor your children’s grades for drop and improvement

Seeking professional help when necessary

Getting your child into professional treatment is very challenging — but it could help even if it’s just a parent’s hunch. By seeking early effective intervention or treatment, you are preventing your children from falling deeper into their depression.

Seek help and consultation from your children’s school guidance counselor, your children’s doctor, and mental health care professionals. Remember, only a mental health care professional can diagnose depression.

In conclusion

Depression is an emotional roller-coaster for its survivors and their families. Seeking knowledge about depression is one of the best ways to start your children’s journey to healing.

The main keys to tending to your children’s depression are communication and looking out for them without being intrusive in their lives. Not every parent’s experience with their children’s depression will be the same, so pick and choose your strategies for providing a loving and supportive home. Allow your little one to feel safe to come to you for their troubles. 

Besides a loving and supportive home, you can also involve the school with the healing progress with your child’s consent. Consult a mental health professional for treatment when it’s necessary. Providing food and a roof is not enough; be there emotionally.

Be the home that your children need. Whether your child is depressed or even if they’re just in a phase, it is imperative to ask for help to discover what intervention may be best for them.

If you would like to see more resources on depression, check out the Parenting Science Labs. The lab uses the research of the Institute for Life Management Science to produce courses, certifications, podcasts, videos, and other tools. Visit the Parenting Science Labs today.

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Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be considered professional medical advice or a substitute for consultation with a qualified healthcare professional. The content of this article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or medical condition.

Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read in this article.

The authors, publishers, and any associated parties do not endorse any specific treatments, procedures, products, or opinions mentioned in this article. Reliance on any information provided in this article is solely at your own risk.

Furthermore, medical knowledge is constantly evolving, and the information presented in this article may not be up-to-date. It is advisable to verify the accuracy of any health-related information by consulting medical professionals.

If you are facing a medical emergency, call your local emergency number immediately or seek medical attention from a qualified healthcare provider.

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