7 Methods to Treat Depression in Children All Parents Should Know
Dr. Cristina Davis
Children, at times, may experience depression. However, unlike adults, they likely have not developed the insight to identify when they experience depression-related symptoms, the vocabulary to explain how they are feeling or the insight into how their behavior toward others may impact their relationships.
Parents may notice a change in their child’s demeanor, behavior, or ability to tolerate stress. Luckily for children, they may be blessed with resourceful parents that are looking to better understand changes in their child and how to help. If you’re reading this, you may be that parent. Here are 7 methods to treat depression in children that every parent should know.
1. Sleep. Just like adults, children need quality sleep. If they have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, maybe it is time to develop a structured bedtime routine. The routine should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. The structure and implementation of a routine will help to signal their brains when it is time to wind down.
For instance, if your child’s bedtime is at 8:00 pm, they should be off all electronics by 6:30 pm, at the latest (this signals the beginning of the routine). Pajamas on and teeth brushed by 7:00 pm and find a quiet activity to do before bed such as read a book, puzzles, cards, etc. (this signals the middle of the routine). You can reinforce this routine with a bedtime story.
For instance, if your child is in bed, teeth brushed, and pajamas on by 7:30 pm, this would be a good time to let them pick out 1-3 books (depending on the length of the books) and read with them or to them until 8:00 pm and then it’s lights out (this will signal the end of the routine). Consistency is key, but expect some hiccups when attempting to implement a new sleep hygiene routine. It will take practice…but remember, practice makes perfect.
2. Socialization. Irritability is common in children when experiencing depression, and at times, isolation, and lack of interest in previously pleasurable activities may be observed as well. Peer interaction is very important during childhood, but especially when a child is experiencing depression.
Children often lack the insight into ways in which they express their feelings, and the implications this has on their relationships with others. Therefore, spending time with other children will force them to engage with others and provide them an opportunity to see their behavior in relation to others.
In addition, parents can help their children reflect on their behavior in relation to their thoughts and emotions, and this will help children develop insight into their feelings and how their behavior and demeanor toward others is helpful or not so helpful to their relationships. Consider enrolling your child in an after-school program such as the Boys and Girls Club or YMCA to maintain socialization throughout the week.
3. Exercise. Low energy and fatigue are symptoms of depression, and lack of activity may reinforce it. Exercise is so important for youth, especially if they are experiencing depression. Consider going to the park for a walk or allow your child to play for at least 30-minutes a few times throughout the week. Also, consider an organized sports activity they can get involved in such as basketball, ice skating, or swimming. The activity is good for their brain and body, and you being present to cheer them on will reinforce their engagement in the selected activity.
4. Limit TV time and social media and all electronics, Parents, be strategic in using these items to reinforce completion of necessary tasks only. Most parents are guilty of what I’m about to address, so don’t feel like you’re the only one, but it is very easy for thirty minutes of electronics to turn into an hour and for that hour to turn into two and so forth.
The lack of activity when glued to a screen, the easy stimulation and quick gratification these various things give anyone that uses them are no good when taken in large amounts with greater frequency. Children may find waiting to be more difficult to tolerate because of the easily accessed stimulation and quick gratification these items provide conditions children for immediate gratification.
Remember, time with electronics is less time socializing with others and less time being active. In essence, it is counterproductive. Avoid removal of electronic time altogether. However, think of ways to structure these activities to follow the tasks that need to be done such as homework, cleaning their bedroom, or taking a shower.
5. De-clutter. Difficulties with concentration can occur with depression. An organized space will help your child focus. Therefore, make sure that everything has a place. Help your child maintain the capacity to focus by eliminating distractions and barriers to the completion of necessary tasks. Assist them in de-cluttering and cleaning their rooms by providing simple instructions such as everything needs to be picked up off the floor, the bed needs to be made, and dirty clothes go into the hamper.
Anticipate that your child’s idea of clean or de-cluttered may initially be very different from yours. Before cleaning or de-cluttering, assist them by writing out a simple checklist of the necessary tasks that need to be completed, and when they become frustrated during the process, coach them to take a few deep breaths and refer them back to the list. This will help to keep your child focused, on-task, and with your help, it will reinforce the behavior.
Over time, you will need to help them less, and the list will replace your presence as your child will have learned how to master these skills. However, you should always make sure to follow up by going to their room and using the checklist to inspect what was accomplished and provide the child with verbal praise (be specific, be excited, and use physical touch such as a knuckle bump to reinforce their behavior).
In addition, at least once a year, sit with them and help organize their toys and/or clothes into three piles including what to keep, what to get rid of, and what they are unsure about (the “maybe” pile). Empower them by allowing them to choose which toys or items go into which pile. However, to avoid overwhelming them, pick one category to work on a day (for instance, this weekend work on toys, and next weekend work on clothes, etc.) and do not do the task for them.
Allow your child enough autonomy to choose the pile, pick up and place items into the designated pile, etc., and you provide moral support through verbal praise when this is done, coaching when frustrated, and redirecting them back to the list. Your role in the completion of tasks is meant to be supportive, and your child should need you less and less to complete these types of tasks as it helps them to develop a sense of accomplishment and control.
6. Model the behavior you want to see from your kids. If you want to help your kids to be active, you need to be active. If you want your children to limit their distractions and electronic time, you need to limit these distractions as well (no phone during dinner, avoid scrolling through Facebook when you are supposed to be engaged in an activity with them, etc.).
When you’re upset, demonstrate helpful ways of expressing your emotions (use feeling words, speak in a calm voice, be assertive, etc.). If you want your children to follow a routine, you need to do this too! As your child’s parent, you are the role model for how to behave. Adults should not expect anything from their kids that they are not willing to do themselves. Model the behavior you want to see from your children.
7. Consult with a professional. If you have not scheduled an appointment with a therapist yet, consider calling to schedule your child an appointment with me at either the Federal Way: (206) 452-6728 or Kent: (253) 656-5454 location. You must find a skilled therapist who is experienced at working with children with depression or depression-related symptoms. A therapist can be a helpful resource for children, but also may help to hold parents accountable for consistently implementing important changes.
For your child to change, the family unit will likely have to change as well. In addition, if the depression symptoms are particularly stagnant and difficult to decrease in severity and/or frequency, the therapist may have a psychiatric provider that specializes in children or has extensive experience working with children that they can refer your child to.
Though this article presented a lot of information, parents need to remember that nobody has it all figured out. When your kiddo is struggling, it doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. Many moms are anxious, trying to meet everybody’s needs. Take it one day at a time, ask for help when you need it, and try to implement the 7 methods to treat depression in children all parents should know.
“Fast Asleep”, Annie Spratt, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Pillow Fight!”, Courtesy of Allen Taylor, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Team Spirit”, Courtesy of Jesse Orrico, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Screen Time”, Courtesy of Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash.com, CC0 License