How to Help Your Child with Depression and Trauma

by Caroline Leaf

It is estimated that around one in twelve children struggle with depression at some point between the ages 9 and 16, with girls more likely to be affected than boys. Unfortunately, depression is a common childhood challenge that often goes unnoticed by adults, including parents, teachers, and pediatricians. This means that a lot of children are entering into adulthood with unmet needs, and feel that they have to cope with the challenges they face alone.

Childhood depression can have a lasting effect in someone’s life if left unmanaged, including an increased risk for anxiety and substance use disorders, worse overall health and social functioning outcomes, less financial and educational achievement, and an increased risk of criminality. It is no wonder that researchers argue that depression in youth between the ages of 10 and 24 is both a leading cause of stress and a possible risk factor for future diseases and impairment!

Of course, all children will experience feelings of sadness, depression and anxiety at some point in their youth. These are normal human reactions to the struggles that both children and adults face. These feelings act as warning signals that something is going on in our life, and they can be very helpful IF we learn how to understand them, what to look out for and how to manage them. This is something we should teach ourselves and our children, because the sooner we learn to manage our thinking, feeling and choosing, the more empowered we will feel over our emotions and our lives.

What does this learning look like on a physical level? There would be no conscious experience without the brain, but our experience cannot be reduced to the brain’s actions. The mind is energy; it is our aliveness. It generates energy through our thinking, feeling, and choosing. (I call this our mind-in-action.) When we generate mind energy through thinking, feeling, and choosing, we build thoughts, which are physical structures in our brain. This is called neuroplasticity. In my most recent clinical trials, we saw how the energy in the brain changed as the subject thought, and this stimulated neuroplasticity (which I discuss in detail in my latest book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess).

The brain responds to the person experiencing “something” with their mind. Essentially, the brain is an extremely complex neuroplastic responderThis means that each time it is stimulated by your mind, it responds in many ways, which includes neurochemical, genetic, and electromagnetic changes. This, in turn, grows and changes structures in the brain, building or wiring in new physical thoughts. The brain is never the same because it changes with every experience we have, every moment of every day, and this is especially true for children whose brains are still developing.

The good news is that we can help our children learn how to manage these changes. This is incredibly important, because unmanaged traumas (big and little, acute and chronic) can be cumulative in nature, creating toxic reactions in the brain and body that, over time, can increase our vulnerability to disease, early mental health issues and even death.

It is essential that we teach our children how to process the struggles they face from youth. We need to let them know that it’s okay to feel sadness, depression, guilt, anger or whatever emotion they have—that there isn’t something wrong with them. We need to let them know that it’s their mind, brain and body’s way of telling them they are going through something and need to process it. Our children need to know that even though we can’t always change what has happened to us, we can influence what happens in us, and how it plays out in our mind, brain and body.

This process starts with us being authentic about our own feelings and demonstrating this to our children as parents, teachers, leaders and so on. We need to learn HOW to speak to our children about difficult situations and emotions, not run away from them or say that our children are “too young”. The truth is, we can’t hide what we are going through from our kids, no matter how good at “adulting” we think we are. They are incredibly observant, so it is important that we address the elephant in the room (in an age-appropriate way, of course) and let them know what is going on before they think to blame themselves or keep how they are feeling inside. For more on this, listen to my recent podcast with child psychologist Dr. Becky Kennedy).

Indeed, we need to create a more open environment at home so that our children know that they can come to us with their struggles. But, you may ask, where do I start? If you see your child struggling, help find ways to calm them down so that they feel comfortable enough talking to you  —  but make sure that you don’t shut them down or make them feel judged! Some easy ways to do this are:

1. Do some deep breathing with your child before talking about a difficult issue:

A breathing exercise will help get lots of oxygen and blood flow to the front of the brain and decrease your child’s feelings of neurochemical chaos, which will, in turn, increase their decision-making capability, reduce impulsivity and help them calm down their brain and body.

You can do a 10 second pause exercise: breathe in for around 3 counts and breathe out for around 7 counts (or for however long your child can handle). Tell them to put their hand on their belly and feel it rise up in the inhalation; on the exhalation, tell them to ‘whoosh’ it out forcefully, which forces oxygen to the front to the brain. Repeat this around 6 to 9 times, for 60 to 90 seconds—or for however long your child can manage.

It is best to explain and demonstrate how to do this first, then do it with your child (you may have to teach your child what a deep breath looks like).

This is best done when your child is lying on their back on a couch, on their bed, on a mat on the floor or wherever they are comfortable. There are some great articles and videos online to help teach your child what deep breathing is and how to do it using props like stuffed animals and bubbles.

2. Make talking about stuff as fun as possible:

Do something fun with your child to get them into an “eager-to-learn” state of mind, which, in turn, primes the brain for learning. As you know your child best, start with a subject that they find interesting, such as animals, sports or cars. For example, you can spend around 5 minutes or so reading the latest news on football and discussing it or looking at certain cars and reading why the new Tesla sedan is superior to the old one and so on. This will make sure your child is engaged and ready to do some thinking work with you on the hard stuff. At the same time, you should be careful to set a time limit for this activity, so that your child knows it’s a small session and a “brain reward” to make their brain and mind stronger and healthier so that doing the hard parts will be easier.

This will help your child look forward to starting the session. In fact, schools do something similawith young kids, starting the day with a certain routine like sing-a-song before going into lessons, to make sure the children are in a good mood and are engaged and paying attention. This facilitates a good balance between the two sides of the brain and improves the mind-brain interaction.

3. Do a gratitude exercise:

You can also do an optional gratitude brain-building activity with your child before you talk about something hard like depression, which will increase theta energy across their brain and improve focus. Just have your child talk about 5 things they’re grateful for and why, but try not to make this a toxic positivity experience. You are using gratitude to help them talk about their struggles, not to put a band aid over an emotional wound.

Of course, it is almost impossible to help your child manage difficult human experiences like depression if you are not aware that they are struggling. This means being there in an intentional way for your child, observing possible shifts in their emotional state or behavior, and being open to listening to what they are trying to tell you. WebMD has a useful list of some signs to watch out for:

  • Continuous feelings of sadness and hopelessness
  • Social withdrawal
  • Being more sensitive to rejection
  • Changes in appetite, either increased or decreased
  • Changes in sleep (sleeplessness or excessive sleep)
  • Vocal outbursts or crying
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Fatigue and low energy
  • Physical complaints (such as stomachaches and headaches) that don’t respond to treatment
  • Trouble during events and activities at home or with friends, in school, during extracurricular activities, and with other hobbies or interests
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Impaired thinking or concentration
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

And, if you find it challenging to help your child on your own, don’t be ashamed to ask for help! There are so many great child therapists, counselors and psychologists out there. Being a parent or guardian can be incredibly difficult, and we all need support at times—there is no shame in asking for help when you are struggling or are not sure what to do.

We also need mental health education in schools, churches, community centers, libraries—in all our institutions, because we are all human and we all have human emotions. If schools are meant to prepare our children for the real world, mental health needs to be a part of the school curriculum as a subject, because we don’t go three seconds without thinking or experiencing the world, and we all struggle with mental health ups and downs. Indeed, no amount of extra math tutoring is going to help if a child’s mental state is a mess! We need to petition school boards to add more mental health education to our children’s education.

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