Talking With Your School-Age Child About Depression

Sometimes, it's hard for children to talk about their depressed feelings with parents. Suggestions for talking with your child about depression.If you think that your child is depressed, it can be very difficult to talk with him about it. If you've had depression yourself -- and many, many parents have--then the challenge may be doubly hard. Here are some suggestions:

  • To get started, let your child know that you care about how he feels. You might say, for example, "I love you, and I want you to feel OK." Let him know why you are concerned: "I'm worried because it seems as if you're feeling angry or unhappy a lot these days," or "It seems as if you don't have much energy to do things."

  • Don't expect your child to know why he feels the way he does. A common mistake parents make is to ask a child, "Why are you sad all the time?" or "Why don't you go out and play more?" Children almost never can answer these kinds of questions, and then they feel bad for not being able to answer.

  • Instead, ask your child about the feelings he has. Often it's helpful to start with a positive: "Are there some things that really make you happy these days?" Then you can move to the negatives: "And sometimes you feel really bad, too? Tell me about that." Try to ask questions that are open-ended, that let your child talk about the things he wants to talk about.

  • It's often very hard for children to talk about their depressed feelings with their parents. They may feel that if they just keep quiet, the feelings will go away. If they think their parents are sad or stressed, they may worry that their own feelings will make things even worse. Many children "protect" their parents in this way. You might tell your child, "I'm really strong, so whatever you tell me, it's OK."

  • You may want to start by talking about some of your own feelings: "You know, sometimes I feel so sad, I just have to cry." This is especially helpful if there has been a sad event that both you and your child have shared-for example, the death of a grandparent. Parents are often tempted to pretend that they're never sad or down, but children almost always know how their parents are feeling. Saying that you feel sad most likely will not come as a surprise. But your child may be relieved to find out that it is possible to talk about sad, angry, or lonely feelings, and that nothing awful happens as a result.

  • Children who are depressed often feel hopeless and alone. You can help by telling your child that you know that he is feeling bad, but he doesn't have to feel that way forever and he doesn't have to handle the problem alone. You are going to help. You might say, for example, "We're going to work on this together, so you can feel better."

  • When discussing the professional help a child might need, a straightforward explanation is best: "When children feel very bad, it's important to see a doctor in order to find out what's causing the bad feelings. Doctors know how to help bad feelings go away, so you can feel happier."

  • Some children are afraid of doctors, or think that doctors are only there to give shots. You can help prepare your child so there won't be surprises: "Mostly, the doctor is going to talk with you and me. She'll probably also listen to your heart and feel your belly, and that kind of thing." If a child asks about needles, it's honest and fair to say that the doctor will decide if there has to be a blood test. There is no specific blood test for depression, but sometimes one is needed to rule out other illnesses.

next: What Causes Depression in Children?
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~ all articles on depression

Last Updated: 23 June 2016

Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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