I know depression.
I lived with it as a child, watched it almost destroy me as a teen, and learned to manage it as an adult.
As a clinician who specializes in mood disorders, I like to teach kids and teenagers how to live with their depression. These tips offer children ways to understand their own unique self, become aware of their thoughts and feelings, and build resiliency as they manage the chronic illness of depression.
1) Understanding the texture of feelings: Many children in this era of super technology aren’t skilled at reading facial cues, understanding eye contact and complex emotions. Studies show that children with depression struggle further, however, having difficulty differentiating the differences between different kinds of emotions. Sad is different than lonely. Lonely is different disappointed. Often, depressed children need help understanding the textures of emotions. When they become confident identifying their feelings, they can set into motion the best plan of action to improve their mood.
2) How to spot negative thinking: I like to teach children about the quality of their thoughts by using a thumbs up and thumbs down technique. Is what you’re thinking a good thought….one that would get a thumbs up from other people? I studied for my test. But if I get a bad grade, it’s okay because I know I tried my best. Or is it a hurtful or negative? One that really is untrue and realistic. It doesn’t matter if I studied. I’m stupid and I’ll fail the test anyway. Teaching children to catch the negative talk helps them approach every issue in life from a place of positivity.
3) How to use positive self-care: Learning to live with depression requires a child to be clever and ever-ready to use soothing ways to address sad moods. Teaching kids and teens to use their 5 senses – sight, touch, hearing, taste and smell – really helps. Things like cozying up to a stuffed animal, hugging loved ones, snacking on healthy, flavorful foods, taking in the fresh air, listening to upbeat music and making time to see colors, nature and sunshine. All of these raise dopamine and serotonin levels improving mood, and teach children how to self-soothe.
4) Why exercise is important: The fatigue that comes with depression leaves kids tired and irritable. Physical complaints like aches and pains also knock them out for the count too. When we take the time to teach children about the importance of physical exercise, it will become part of a lifelong skill-set. Be it playing tag with friends or catch with the dog, swimming or riding a bike, kick-boxing or yoga, or a simple walk, the shift in neurochemistry boosts mood.
5) When too much of something isn’t good: It’s also vital for kids to learn how too much of anything can upset the apple cart. For example, the fatigue of depression can leave children tired, with many prone to sleeping all day. Instead, children should learn that a nap is better than a full-on sleepfest. Some depressed children eat in excess, while others lose their appetite altogether. Both of these extremes are unhealthy. Too much crying, too much avoidance or too much irritability raises the stress hormone cortisol, which heightens anxiety and alertness. When we teach children to monitor their experiences with healthy limits, we give them the ability to balance and self-manage their well-being. Daily stickers for young ones and journaling for the older set can teach children how to better monitor symptoms and moods.
6) Know the difference between a bad day and a sad mood: When depressed kids learn how to measure the moment, they learn that a sad mood doesn’t have to ruin a day. However, if they can’t shake off the sad mood – and the rest of the day feels like an epic fail, it’s great for kids to know that a bad day doesn’t equal a bad life. Tomorrow is a new day. One to be measured for its own value.
7) How to let others know you need help: When children are depressed, they often don’t know how to reach out for support. Their fatigue and irritability dulls problem solving skills. Others might not feel they deserve help or would rather isolate themselves from family or friends. Depressed children need to know that everyone needs help now and then – and that no one can …or should… handle everything alone. I like to teach children to communicate their needs verbally and non-verbally. With words, through crying, by touch – it’s okay to show you others that you’re having a tough time.
Dr. Deborah Serani is a psychologist and an award-winning author. For more, please check out Depression and Your Child: A Guide for Parents and Caregivers and Living with Depression from the Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.