The lives of young people have been greatly impacted during the pandemic and the month of May has raised awareness of mental health and the importance of supporting young people.
In this article, Philip Graham, Emeritus Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Institute of Child Health, University College, London, provides advice on how parents can help their child if they show signs of depression.
If you think your child is depressed, you yourself are quite likely to be confused and panicky about the situation. It’s really upsetting to think your child is emotionally so upset. Straight away you are likely to worry that you are in some way responsible. So maybe the most helpful first thing you can do is to try and take as cool a look at the situation as you can manage. You might pretend for a bit that you are not his or her mother or father, but a friend. How would a friend see the situation?
Noticing the signs
Think first about what signs of depression your child is showing. The most common are sad, unhappy mood, irritability, lack of pleasure in everyday activities, withdrawal, disturbed sleep, a change in appetite, thoughts about wanting to die, self-harming, self-blame and difficulties with schoolwork. If, for more than three or four weeks, your child is sad and unhappy and is showing a number of the other signs, there is cause for concern.
Next think about what might be causing the problem. Some sort of a loss is the most common stress. This might be the loss of a friend who has left the neighbourhood or has been rejecting your child. There might be tensions in the family. Academic pressure and bullying at school or on social media are other common upsetting causes. The cause may not be psychological. Depression may be triggered by a viral illness. Some children become depressed for no obvious reason: they may be sad and unhappy for several weeks, then recover and, at the end of it all, no one, including the child, has any idea what it was all about.
Identify ways to help
Next, of course, if you’ve been able to identify it, you will want to think what you can do about the cause. Occasionally, there will be an obvious course of action, such as trying to bring about the renewal of a friendship by ringing the parent of the other child. Often the cause will not be easily remediable. This doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do. There may be a lot you can do to help.
Most importantly, you should try to listen to what your child has to say. Sounds easy, but it often isn’t. You may be very busy and preoccupied yourself, distressed about other matters, not really wanting to know what the child has to say in case it might be too upsetting to hear. Or your child may be withdrawn and difficult to talk to. All the same, it really is important to listen. Things may not be as you think. It may not be the lockdown and loneliness, but something quite else, like a remark your child has heard your partner say to you. So switch off the mobile phone, go for a walk with your child and listen. Some things to avoid: don’t burden the child with your own worries; don’t tell stories about other children who’ve got better; don’t try to cheer your child up by telling him or her not to worry or giving the impression he or she is to blame. If your child believes you are taking his or her problems seriously, this, just by itself, is going to be helpful.
Once you have listened and heard, hopefully you will be in a better position to help. Just occasionally, there may be practical things you can do. Discussing the situation with your partner or a friend may result in a new way forward. You may need to get a better grip on internet use. In particular, some websites for teenagers go into great detail about how to self-harm as a means of releasing tension. Without being judgemental, try to discuss with your child which websites might be helpful and which unhelpful.
Regardless of the problems, don’t forget the importance of a healthy lifestyle. A healthy diet and keeping fit are more likely to improve your child’s mood than medication; although, just occasionally, prescribed medication can indeed be helpful.
If your child remains depressed for a month or more, or if, at any time, you are worried your child may engage in self-harm, then you need to seek further help. Your first port of call should be your GP. In term time you should contact the school, as talking to a teacher will often be helpful and many schools now have mental health professionals and counsellors on the premises. Obtaining help is something you need to do, if at all possible, with your child so that he or she feels fully involved in decisions that affect him or her.
Keep the conversation going
The good news is that depression nearly always gets better after a few weeks or months. But, of course, it may recur. That is why you need to work out with your child how to cope with stresses in advance, so that you can build up your child’s natural resilience and ability to cope with the adversities that life inevitably brings.
Philip Graham is Emeritus Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Institute of Child Health, University College, London. For 25 years he was a consultant psychiatrist at the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, London, where he saw and treated many children with emotional problems. He has written a number of books and articles. Recently he published (jointly with Nick Midgley) a short book called So Young, So Sad, So Listen: A Parent’s Guide to Depression in Children and Young People.