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How To Help A Depressed Child

Father and Son

A new study[1] has found that children in pre-school who are depressed are more than twice as likely to continue to experience depression all the way through childhood. An incredible statistic and it shows how much we need to support our children.

However, the correct support for a depressed child can really make a difference. And it’s possibly not what you think.

When a child demonstrates a low mood, which is the common symptom of depression, a parent’s natural inclination is to offer words of encouragement to try and boost their self esteem – it certainly is mine! However, giving children who are depressed direct compliments is totally ineffective. In fact, trying to make a child feel better with positive affirmations can be counter productive.

The child will hear the affirmation as a deviation from the truth. Saying ‘you’re wonderful no matter what you say or do’ or ‘you’ve got nothing to worry about’ is not hitting the mark for the child. They don’t feel wonderful and they do have a lot to worry about.

The problem with statements like this is they miss the point and the child doesn’t get what he or she needs. But, children being children, they assume they are in the wrong because they don’t feel wonderful and they do worry.

They don’t have the emotional intellect to work out that the adult is trying to make them feel better. Instead they conclude that they are useless because their feelings don’t change as a result of the adult’s soothing words.

So, what can you do? Listen, listen, listen.

Not just any old ‘listen’ but get down onto the child’s level and listen to what they’re saying and how they are saying it. Here’s how to do it:

  • Get on your knees/on the floor so you can look at them face to face; it’s better than looking down at them

  • Listen to their words if they share things with you

  • If they don’t just play with them; let them know you’re a safe person and they will eventually

  • Once they tell you things, repeat back what you hear – word for word

  • Once you’ve got the gist of what they’re sharing with you, reflect back some adult wisdom in child like words.

By repeating back what they’ve said it tells them you’ve really heard them and that’s worth a thousand compliments because you dissolve their shame. You can then offer reassurance as a direct consequence of their anxiety and the most direct way is to simply understand their feelings. Human empathy is more powerful than affirmation; it says – I get you!

[1]Washington University in St. Louis, Early Emotional Development Program published in American Journal of Psychiatry.


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