As a parent, no job feels more important than securing your child’s happiness. So when you begin to notice changes in your child’s behavior or hear from a teacher that their performance has declined, it can be frustrating to not understand where these differences in temperament are coming from — or how you can help.
A formal depression diagnosis from your child's healthcare provider may reveal why your child’s behavior has changed. With a diagnosis in hand, recent dips in interest or energy can suddenly make a lot more sense. However, a diagnosis of depression alone will not be enough to guide your child back to optimal mental health.
Instead, parents will need to work alongside their child to appropriately treat depression symptoms. Consider these eight tips to connect with your child and help them through a depression diagnosis.
1. Educate Yourself
After your child’s depression diagnosis, you’ll likely spend quite a few late nights combing the internet for answers. From ‘how can parents help their child with depression’ to ‘does my child need psychiatric help’ you may search high and low for how to help your child.
However, if you’ve ever spent time searching for guidance on childhood depression, you know firsthand that there is plenty of misinformation online. There are a ton of myths on the Internet regarding the symptoms of depression in a child, how depression medication works, and if there is genetic testing for medication.
“A lot of patients come into treatment with misinformation,” says Dr. Thomas J. Valente, Medical Director at LifeStream Behavioral Center and child and adolescent psychiatry specialist. So, it’s paramount for parents to thoroughly educate themselves about the disorder, and how it can present itself differently in each individual, before looking into their child’s treatment for depression.
2. Encourage the Acceptance of the Diagnosis
“Kids with mental illnesses are huge targets,” states Dr. Valente. “Kids who are different get singled out.” It’s important to remind your child that their diagnosis is nothing to be ashamed of and provide them with support at home, especially if there is any bullying at school.
As there is a significant link between feelings of shame and depression, parents should work to remove any stigma from a depression diagnosis wherever they can and encourage the acceptance of the diagnosis as a family.
3. Help Verbalize Emotions
“Kids can’t always tell us they’re depressed,” explains Dr. Valente. “Although some kids are very open and honest, they just don’t have the language to describe the symptoms they’re feeling.” If you are a parent of a child struggling with depression, this is likely something that you are already familiar with.
However, there are ways to overcome this barrier. Though your child may not be able to perfectly articulate how they’re feeling, create a space that is open and honest for them to express themselves. For example, some parents have found success in working with their child to establish simple analogies to use to express emotions, such as relating specific colors or emojis to certain moods.
4. Address Sleep Hygiene
One area to monitor consistently with your child is sleep hygiene. As Dr. Valente says, “a lot of kids simply aren’t getting enough sleep,” and lack of sleep may lead to mood impairment. Before implementing a strict protocol, Dr. Valente recommends providing your child with a cold, dark room for bedtime. Ensure there are no stimuli, such as television or video games, to disturb their sleep cycle. Then, monitor behavioral symptoms for signs of potential improvement.
5. Adjust Diet and Exercise
It's a common misconception that medication can act as the be-all and end-all of childhood depression treatment. However, there are often several factors at play that can impact treatment trajectory.
Lifestyle factors can also impact medication efficacy. “That’s where eating a healthy diet, exercising, and getting proper rest comes in,” explains Dr. Valente. “If you don’t do those things, then medication may not have the robust response that we want.”
Dr. Valente recommends adhering to a diet of healthy foods, such as the Mediterranean diet, which has been linked to a reduction of depressive symptoms. Aside from diet, parents can help children manage depression by encouraging routine exercise, which has shown to have comparable effects to antidepressants in some cases.
6. Bond, Don’t Hover
You can’t expect your child to open up to you if you’re not spending time with them, especially if they’re a teenager. So, be sure to spend quality time with your child — just don’t hover or be pushy.
Instead, Dr. Valente recommends that parents “find things that are experiential.” He states, “The biggest thing a parent can do for a child with depression is to spend time with them.”
For instance, you can join a gym together and create a tag-team exercise program that works in favor of their treatment. Or if your child is returning to school after a mental health crisis, you can make it a point to plan a recurring weekend activity or dedicate a special morning routine.
7. Provide Opportunities to Excel
After a depression diagnosis, it’s key for parents to help their child build back some positivity. If your child has a talent or hobby, such as sports, music, or art, take the time to accentuate that. Dr. Valente recommends providing opportunities where your child can excel, especially if they are coping with chronic or recurrent depression.
8. Work With Your Child’s Provider to Find An Effective Medication
“As a parent, I respect parents not wanting to medicate their children, but I also need to sometimes encourage parents to take that step to do what’s necessary for the child,” says Dr. Valente. If you do decide to explore medication options, Dr. Valente recommends genetic testing for medication to ensure the prescribed antidepressant "is genetically in line with your child, your child’s liver, and at a dose that we know is going to be therapeutic.”
“I jump to genetic testing for all of my referral patients,” explains Dr. Valente. “Even our [clinicians'] best guesses can be wrong. There are so many different types of genes involved with finding the proper protocol...I’ve had patients I didn’t know could be a rapid and a slow metabolizer, which can significantly affect how I approach selecting a medication and dosage.”
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Is Your Child’s Depression Treatment Effective?
It can be difficult to know how to guide your child through a depression diagnosis, but it’s important to get off on the right foot. In the words of Dr. Valente, “The first episode of treatment might paint the future of the rest of their life.”
About the Contributor
Dr. Thomas J. Valente serves as the Medical Director at LifeStream Behavioral Center in Leesburg, Florida, where he specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry.