Managing Depression and Talking To Your Kids About Sadness

February 28, 2018


Amy Fortney Parks, PhD – Practice Owner: The world is a confusing place – and there is a lot of sadness. There are often situations (and opportunities) when we want – or need – to talk to our kids about BIG sadness – depression. And you may be worried about saying the “right” thing. We tell parents at The Wise Family that just having an honest conversation with a child about BIG feelings might provide super support.

Here are 3 tips to help –

Use “kid friendly” words – Make sure that the words you are using with your kids are easy to understand. Words like “depression” might be too complex for young children, but may be appropriate for tweens and teens. We use “big feelings of sadness” to explain depression sometimes. Before you launch into any conversation, make sure your kids/teens understand the language you are using.

Be positive, and honest – When you are talking about depression, the goal is to support sharing and conversation so discuss the seriousness of this illness, along with the availability of support and care. If your child asks about something you can’t answer, tell your child that you don’t know, and make a list of questions to discuss with a mental health professional – and follow up.

Be a good listener – Allow your child/teen to talk openly and express opinions and thoughts. These might not align with yours, but avoid interrupting or punishing your child/teen for their feelings. All feelings are ok – it is the actions that we want to help guide.

And while talking about depression with your family is very important, it does not replace the need for a mental health professional in your life. Find someone that you can trust, that also connects well with kids. If you need help finding someone, reach out to us here.

Dominique AdkinsEdD – Therapist for The Wise Family:  Depression comes in many forms. A teen may act out, cry, get angry, or take risks. The variety of manifestions of depression can lead to the emotional needs being overlooked. Teens’ busy schedules, the need to strive for perfection, constant connection with electronics often prevents them from being fully aware of their emotions. Additionally, there is often a tendency to avoid difficult moments and feelings which only prolongs the suffering. Each moment in life is temporary. Mindful awareness of each emotion not only reduces the suffering but increases awareness of the positive. I encourage teens to designate time to spend quietly and alone with their thoughts and feelings so they can mindfully and non-judgmentally notice what they are experiencing each day. This mindful moment helps teens to slow down, recognize, communicate their needs, and proceed in a way that supports them in the moment. Let’s partner with teens to increase communication about feelings and help create these daily mindful moments!

Amanda Beyland, LCSW – Therapist for The Wise Family:  Talking about how we feel is usually a difficult task for all of us but kids especially can have a difficult time communicating how they are feeling. We’ve had years of practice when it comes to our emotions which helps us pinpoint how we’re feeling and why that may be. Sometimes, with kids, these big emotions come with big reactions that cannot always be connected back to how they are feeling. While the kids are unsure about exactly how they are feeling, we as adults are trying to figure it out too! Sometimes people jump to assumptions about how someone may be feeling based on how they are expressing themselves but that isn’t always the case. Yelling doesn’t always mean we’re angry just like crying is not always due to sadness. In order to understand how we’re feeling we have to talk about it and embrace all of our feelings; not just the easy ones!
Sadness can be especially hard to talk about because it isn’t always something that is understood. Someone may be sad for a reason that someone else wouldn’t be able to relate to but that doesn’t make the sadness any less real. Acknowledge your child’s sadness for whatever it is! They may be sad about forgetting their favorite stuffed animal at home which may sound silly to us but is sincere for them. Reassure your child that sadness is an emotion that everyone experiences at some point in time, you can even share with them a time that you felt sad. This will help to normalize the feeling for the child and help them to become more comfortable with feeling sad. Don’t rush them out of their feelings but talk to them about what might help them feel better.

Kasey CainResident in Counseling – Therapist for The Wise Family: Depression is one of those terms that is used regularly. It is not uncommon during an average day in a school or office for me to hear someone say “I am so depressed!” As an adult, when we hear a child say this, it is difficult to know if the child is expressing a feeling of sadness in the moment, or a more recurring feeling that may be getting in the way of his or her life. Even as adults we often have difficulty understanding, expressing, and managing our feelings.

One of the first steps towards helping your child manage depression or other uncomfortable feelings is to be open with your feelings. Children watch all that we say and do. If we can learn to express our feelings in a healthy way or at least note when we realize we perhaps acted out, then children will model our behavior. It is important to remember that there is no such thing as a “bad feeling.” There are pleasant feelings that we like to have and others’ that are more uncomfortable. All feelings are natural and worth exploring and understanding.

Another step towards talking about sadness is to begin early and in “low threat” ways. The optimal time to talk to your child about being super sad is not when he or she is already sobbing. These conversation can happen any time. When reading a book, watching a movie – heck, even commercials can bring out strong emotions. Take any moment as an opportunity to learn about the complexity of feelings with your child. Expand their feelings vocabulary so your child understands that sad, lonely, gloomy, disappointed, and depressed are variances of similar feelings. And, remember, none of them are bad, because they can use these feelings to learn new, healthy coping mechanisms and increase their resilience. You will be surprised at how much you learn too!

Lynlee Tanner Stapleton, PhD – Evaluator for The Wise Family:  One of the first steps to effectively managing depression in children and teens is better understanding how it is likely to present itself. Many adults assume that depression looks like the stereotypical episodes of obvious sadness, crying, not wanting to leave bed, etc. But in young people, depression is just as likely to appear as heightened irritability and “testiness”, a loss of interest or pleasure in things they used to enjoy, more negative ways of thinking and seeing the world, and/or physical symptoms like persistent changes in appetite, weight, or activity level.

These are often dismissed as your child being “difficult” or “just being a teen” but may mask deeper concerns. If you notice these signs, begin to gently ask more questions, making sure to avoid a judgmental or dismissive tone, and expect that your efforts may be rebuffed at first (or second or third…). A child dealing with depression is likely to think you will never understand or she is unworthy or unable to be helped. Gentle, supportive listening and persistence are key. While mild symptoms may improve with time, don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help, as depression is often chronic and recurrent. And indications that your child is having thoughts of death or self-harm should always be taken seriously, with a focus on ensuring safety.

Depression can seem scary and strange, but with some preparation and support from others, you and your child can weather the storm with effective help.

Be Wise!