In Part II of James Lehman, MSW’s series on episodic childhood depression, he’ll discuss concrete ways you can teach your child coping skills. If your child seems distressed, despondent or sad for a prolonged period of time, have them seen by someone with diagnostic skills. Be sure to have a pediatrician rule out any underlying issues that might be causing depression.
By the time they’re in adolescence, there are a lot of kids who are pretty comfortable using clinical and diagnostic excuses to avoid responsibilities: That has become their chief coping skill.
I can’t say it enough: teach kids problem-solving skills from a very early age. If your child has developed problem solving skills but lost access to them because they are depressed periodically, you have to help them regain access to those skills. So how do you do this? Here are some suggestions for ways to help you coach your child through it:
- Help Kids Identify Coping Skills: When you ask a teen or pre-teen, “What are your coping skills,” if he can say, “Oh, I go to my room. I listen to some music, I count to ten,” that’s good because he understands that coping is a skill, not an art or magic. And once you teach kids that behavior is a skill, the next step is to get them to identify problems and develop the behavioral tools to deal with them. And so it becomes, “You’re feeling sad, you’re feeling depressed, what can we do about that problem? What would you find helpful?” It gives you a place to stand where you can both begin talking about how to solve the problem of feeling sad.
- Keep Them Busy: When people are depressed, kids as well as adults, they still have to meet their responsibilities. Again, I’m not talking about kids who are so clinically depressed they’re immobilized. For everyone else, one of the most important treatments for depression is to get the person up off their butt to do the dishes, make the bed, take a shower. It doesn’t have to be done in a harsh manner, but you should be firm. If your child can’t handle a complex task, give them simple ones, but keep them busy. Depressed people should not be allowed to lie in bed under the covers, because it just makes the situation worse.
- Responsibilities: As far as responsibilities go, I don’t think a lot of special consideration should be given to kids who are episodically depressed. Rather, maintain the same expectations. They will probably need more support to perform at the same level. Know that you have to give them more opportunities to regroup. Be more available to them when they start feeling overwhelmed, but don’t let them avoid their responsibilities. You can say, “We understand you’re down, but you still have to do your homework.” You may want to ease them into tasks by having them do the dishes with you in the kitchen, do their homework while you work nearby, or go to the store with you. Again, get them out and moving about. Remember, a good parenting style for kids who are depressed is like a coaching style. Coach your child to learn new skills. During a time of episodic depression in your child’s life, I would recommend that you use more coaching and less limit setting.
- Why a Quiet Room is Important: Children who are depressed often exhibit distractibility and impaired concentration, so it’s important to get them in a soothing environment. Don’t try to have a talk with them about their behavior or about their coping skills when a lot of other distractions are present. In a school setting, if you’re in a special education class where there’s a lot of noise in the classroom, an upset child will not be able to engage in a conversation in a way that’s helpful. That’s why many schools have a “quiet room” where kids can go to calm down. Once that happens, the adult in charge can talk with them about whether or not they’re angry, whether or not they’re depressed, what the problem is and how they can solve it. The same goes for kids at home. If possible, take your child into a room where there are no distractions and let them calm down before opening a conversation about why they’re upset. And let your child know that you’re willing to listen to them and talk with them about what’s making them sad. You can say, “We won’t force you to talk if you don’t want to, but we’re here.”
- Recognize That Moodiness is Part of Growing Up: We all go through moods, adolescents especially, and parents have to be understanding of that. The idea here is, “Yes, we tolerate moods, but you still have to do your homework.” You can say, “All right, so you can be moody, you can feel irritable, you can be down, you can be sad. We’ll talk with you about it if you want to, but you’ve got to get your homework done either way.” You can also do a bit more coaching with moody kids around this. Try saying, “Hey, you seemed okay yesterday, what happened? Did something happen in school?” You can probe it a little bit more, but don’t let your child avoid responsibilities through these mood states.
- “Everyone Gets Sad Sometimes.” Let your child know that we all have periods of feeling down, that problems can seem overwhelming to everyone at times. Feelings of sadness are a part of depression, but they’re also very human. Even intense feelings of sadness can be experienced without it being considered unhealthy or abnormal. And for most kids, the depression they go through is a period of sadness, a period of being down, a time when something’s going wrong and they don’t know what to do about it. Parents can talk that through with their kids. And they can use the teaching style and a coaching style to help them manage those feelings and learn more skills.
What kids need to know is that no matter what, the rules still apply to them. A generation of kids is being raised to think that because they’re depressed, they don’t have to follow the rules. They believe if they say they’re depressed, if they act out, somebody will give them a pill or give them easier homework or tell them, “you don’t have to do your homework, you’re depressed.” By the time they’re in adolescence, there are a lot of kids who are pretty comfortable using clinical and diagnostic excuses to avoid responsibilities: That has become their chief coping skill.
They don’t learn how to solve problems and figure out how to manage tasks, because they’re mainly concerned with convincing you that they can’t do it. The sad thing is that they wind up in adulthood with absolutely no skills. What they don’t realize is that nobody’s going to be there to take care of them and make the world an easier place for them to navigate.
When your child is sad or depressed, it’s not good—many parents would do anything in the world to take that feeling away so their child does not have to experience it. But look at it this way: hard as it is, going through an episode of depression is yet another opportunity for your child to learn how to cope with problems. And the more we can teach them to solve problems as they grow, the better they’ll be able to function successfully and manage life’s twists and turns when they become adults.