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Supporting children and young people with depression

Information for parents and carers to support children and young people with depression.

What is depression?

It is normal for children and young people to sometimes feel sad, irritable or unmotivated and to learn how to navigate these emotions as they grow and develop. However, for children or young people experiencing low mood or depression they may get stuck with persistent feelings of unhappiness, hopelessness and anxiety which can impact on their relationships, their learning, and their physical health. 

Depression can affect children and young people of all ages though it is most common in teenagers. Whilst difficult to go through, depression is a common illness which can be treated using a range of different therapies and, depending on the severity of the condition, medication. The most important thing to remember is that although depression may make you feel as though you're completely alone, thousands of other people in the UK are going through similar experiences.

Signs that child or young person may be affected by depression 

Depression can cause a range of mental and physical symptoms. These typically cluster around three core changes in experience:

  • in mood

  • in thinking patterns

  • in physical changes.

There are three categories of diagnosed depression: mild, moderate and severe. Children and young people with depression may experience feelings of emptiness, hopelessness, irritability and sadness. Some may also experience feelings of tiredness or agitation, low appetite and bodily aches. They may have increased difficulties in their relationships with friends and family, becoming more withdrawn or isolated from those people or activities that they once enjoyed, and their academic performance may start to decline as they lose interest or motivation in their studies.

Children and young people with moderate depression may display additional symptoms such as excessive worrying, lack of productivity self-esteem issues, and a reliance on harmful coping strategies such as misusing substances and alcohol, and self-harm.  Some may also have increased thoughts of death and dying.

Signs of a severe episode of depression may include increased thoughts of death and dying and actual attempts on their own life.  Parents and carers will need to be aware of and prepared to have conversations about suicide with their child which can be extremely difficult and painful. Professional support for a child or young person who may have suicidal thoughts or intentions is essential. The trauma of supporting a child or young person who has tried to commit suicide may mean that you as a parent or carer may also need some professional support and you should not be afraid or ashamed to seek this help as it will help you to continue to support your child.

If your child experiences symptoms of depression every day for over 2 weeks, you should seek help from your GP. If you are worried about your child harming themselves or others you should visit A&E or call 999.  

How to support a child or young person with depression

If your child is showing signs of depression it is important to support them as the rate of recovery is much quicker for those who have strong network around them. The more knowledgeable you are about depression the easier it will be to talk to your child about what they are experiencing and to help them communicate how they’re feeling, which may be very difficult for them to explain. As depression is a persistent illness, progress may appear slow but keeping conversations open and calm will invite them to speak when they are able and that you are there for them whenever they may need to talk.

When you do talk to your child, it is important to remain calm and comforting. Try to make statements that express empathy for her distress such as, “it sounds like that was really difficult for you.’’ Try to avoid telling them what to do directly or forcing them to talk if they do not want to. Statements like “It’s not that bad, cheer up!’ or, ‘you’re being too sensitive’ risk dismissing how a young person feels and may close the door on them feeling able to share their feelings without feeling shame or judgement.  

Looking into treatments will help, even discussing potential treatments with them so you can work through the options together. You can encourage them to develop a routine incorporating exercise, socialising, regular meals and getting enough sleep.  Our self-care resource has over 90 strategies which young people have told us help them when they feel low or anxious which may help them create a personal self-care plan.

If you are very concerned about your child you may wish to encourage them to talk to a professional, whilst conveying that this is a positive, strong decision which you would fully support.

What to say to schools and colleges

It is important to talk to your child’s school or college if your child’s symptoms are affecting their concentration or attendance and to let your child know what you are sharing with their school or college.  The more information they know about your child the more they can adapt the classroom and teaching to support them. Contact with the school should be ongoing. The staff can help identify motivators or triggers, recognise signs of escalation and identify safe spaces if your child is feeling overwhelmed.  

If your child is struggling with their work and deadlines, you can discuss extensions or extra help for schoolwork which may help your child feel less overwhelmed or stressed by their studies. You can work with the school or college on developing a routine for homework or study and suggest that praise and encouragement would be preferable to any form of punishment and can act as a strong motivator.

Your child might be able to take advantage of a school counsellor or your school or college may have links to local support services which might provide additional support to your child.  Your child might also identify a trusted member of staff that they feel comfortable talking to or having check in on them at regular intervals. 

It is important to also recognise that children with severe depression may be at risk of being teased or bullied.  You should review your school’s policy on bullying and seek support for your child should this occur.  Collaborating with teachers and administrators about how to manage these situations can reduce stigma and there are resources schools and colleges can use which can help start conversations and increase understanding about mental health issues.  As children and young people with depression may withdraw from activities and friendship groups, your school may have specific plans which may help your child to stay engaged and motivated.

What to say to siblings 

Siblings will also require support during this time. They will be aware of changes in the house and their sibling’s behaviour so it is important to talk to them about depression. The more they understand what depression is and what the symptoms are the more supportive they might be.  It is particular helpful for siblings to understand that changes in behaviour towards them is often down to an illness and not anything that they themselves have done. 

Allow space for siblings to ask you questions and talk to you about how they might be feeling.  It is helpful to discuss things which they might want to avoid saying. It is also important to spend time with them where the focus is on them as they will not want to feel forgotten or less significant due to their siblings depression.

To ease the pressure, seek help to keep the family routines as close to normal as possible. Friends and family members may be able to help handle errands, carpools, and meals. Siblings should continue to attend school and their usual recreational activities; the family should strive for normalcy and time for everyone to be together. 

What to say to extended family 

Talking about your child’s depression with close friends, extended family and your child’s educators might be difficult at first, but it will open the door to creating a stronger support network for you and your child. You can discuss as much or little as you wish and it is advisable to agree what or may not be shared with your child.  

If they are visiting it may be good to explain sudden or unexpected changes in your child’s mood and behaviour so they are aware. Better understanding can ease tension and uncertainty about how to respond. It also gives you an opportunity to discuss the best ways to interact with your child, reiterating positivity.  

It can be helpful for you to speak to someone outside the household. You may be under a lot of pressure during this time and having someone to speak to, whether about depression or anything else, can help to take your mind off it for a while. Having a wide network of support is useful.  

Additional support for parents and carers