Depression in children: tips for parents
Written by Pragya Lodha
The Mumbai Program Director & Clinical Psychologist at The MINDS Foundation. Honorary Associate Editor for the Indian Journal of Mental Health with over 100 National and International publications
Children learn by example, especially from their parents and caretakers. The best way to help them practice self-care and healthy habits is to model them yourself. Here are some behaviours that improve mental hygiene and overall wellbeing that are great to teach to your children early in their lives.
Cultivate supportive relationships:
- Turn to friends and family members who make you feel loved and cared for. Spend time talking and listening face-to-face with trusted people and share what you’re going through. The people you talk to don’t have to be able to fix you; they just need to be good listeners. Ask for the help and support you need. You may have retreated from your most treasured relationships, but emotional connection can get you through this tough time.
- Try to keep up with social activities even if you don’t feel like it. Often when you’re depressed, it feels more comfortable to retreat into your shell, but being around other people will make you feel less depressed.
- Join a support group for depression. Being with others dealing with depression can go a long way in reducing your sense of isolation. You can also encourage each other, give and receive advice on how to cope, and share your experiences.
- Exercise now… and then again. A 10-minute walk can improve your mood for two hours. The key to sustaining mood benefits is to exercise regularly.
- Choose activities that are moderately intense. Aerobic exercise undoubtedly has mental health benefits, but you don’t need to sweat strenuously to see results.
- Find exercises that are continuous and rhythmic (rather than intermittent).Walking, swimming, dancing, yoga, and cycling or stationary biking are good choices.
- Add a mind-body element. Activities such as yoga and tai chi rest your mind and increase your energy. You can also add a meditative element to walking or swimming by repeating a mantra (a word or phrase) as you move.
- Start slowly, and don’t overdo it. More isn’t better. Athletes who overtrain find their moods drop rather than lift.
- Think outside yourself. Ask yourself if you’d say what you’re thinking about yourself to someone else. If not, stop being so hard on yourself. Think about less harsh statements that offer more realistic descriptions.
- Allow yourself to be less than perfect. Many depressed people are perfectionists, holding themselves to impossibly high standards and then beating themselves up when they fail to meet them. Battle this source of self-imposed stress by challenging your negative ways of thinking
- Socialize with positive people. Notice how people who always look on the bright side deal with challenges, even minor ones, like not being able to find a parking space. Then consider how you would react in the same situation. Even if you have to pretend, try to adopt their optimism and persistence in the face of difficulty.
- Keep a “negative thought log.” Whenever you experience a negative thought, jot down the thought and what triggered it in a notebook. Review your log when you’re in a good mood. Consider if the negativity was truly warranted. Ask yourself if there’s another way to view the situation. For example, let’s say your boyfriend was short with you and you automatically assumed that the relationship was in trouble. It’s possible, though, he’s just having a bad day.
What you can teach your children?
- Aim for eight hours of sleep. Depression typically involves sleep problems. Whether you’re sleeping too little or too much, your mood suffers. Get on a better sleep schedule by learning healthy sleep habits.
- Expose yourself to a little sunlight every day. Lack of sunlight can make depression worse. Make sure you’re getting enough. Take a short walk outdoors, have your coffee outside, enjoy an al fresco meal, people-watch on a park bench, or sit out in the garden. Aim for at least 15 minutes of sunlight a day to boost your mood. If you live somewhere with little winter sunshine, try using a light therapy box.
- Practice relaxation techniques. A daily relaxation practice can help relieve symptoms of depression, reduce stress, and boost feelings of joy and well-being. Try yoga, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or meditation.
- Care for a pet. While nothing can replace the human connection, pets can bring joy and companionship into your life and help you feel less isolated. Caring for a pet can also get you outside of yourself and give you a sense of being needed—both powerful antidotes to depression.
Eat a healthy, mood-boosting diet
- Don’t skip meals. Going too long between meals can make you feel irritable and tired, so aim to eat something at least every three to four hours.
- Minimize sugar and refined carbs. You may crave sugary snacks, baked goods, or comfort foods such as pasta or French fries, but these “feel-good” foods quickly lead to a crash in mood and energy.
- Focus on complex carbohydrates. Foods such as baked potatoes, whole-wheat pasta, oatmeal, and whole grain breads can boost serotonin levels without a crash.
- Boost your B vitamins. Deficiencies in B vitamins such as folic acid and B-12 can trigger depression. To get more, take a B-complex vitamin supplement or eat more citrus fruit, leafy greens, beans, chicken, and eggs.
- Try super-foods rich in nutrients that can boost mood, such as bananas (magnesium to decrease anxiety, vitamin B6 to promote alertness, tryptophan to boost feel-good serotonin levels), brown rice (serotonin, thiamine to support sociability), and spinach (magnesium, foliate to reduce agitation and improve sleep).
- Consider taking a chromium supplement. Some depression studies show that chromium picolinate reduces carbohydrate cravings, eases mood swings, and boosts energy. Supplementing with chromium picolinate is especially effective for people who tend to overeat and oversleep when depressed.
Pragya Lodha, MINDS Mumbai Program Director & Psychologist
Ankita Gupta, MINDS Research Associate
Anoushka Thakkar, MINDS Research Associate
Roshni Dadlani, MINDS Communications Lead
- Cuellar, A. (2015). Preventing and Treating Child Mental Health Problems. The Future of Children, 25(1), 111-134. Retrieved August 11, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43267765
- Children’s Mental Health. (2021). Retrieved 4 August 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/basics.html
- de Girolamo, Giovanni & Dagani, Jessica & Purcell, R & Cocchi, Angelo & Mcgorry, Patrick. (2012). Age of onset of mental disorders and use of mental health services: Needs, opportunities and obstacles. Epidemiology and psychiatric sciences. 21. 47-57. 10.1017/S2045796011000746.
- Kessler, R. C., Amminger, G. P., Aguilar-Gaxiola, S., Alonso, J., Lee, S., & Ustün, T. B. (2007). Age of onset of mental disorders: a review of recent literature. Current opinion in psychiatry, 20(4), 359–364. https://doi.org/10.1097/YCO.0b013e32816ebc8c
- MayoClinic (2021). Retrieved 5 August 2021, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/mental-illness-in-children/art-20046577
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- Ogundele, M. (2018). Behavioural and emotional disorders in childhood: A brief overview for paediatricians. World Journal Of Clinical Pediatrics, 7(1), 9-26. doi: 10.5409/wjcp.v7.i1.9
- Tolan, P. H., & Dodge, K. A. (2005). Children’s mental health as a primary care and concern: a system for comprehensive support and service. The American psychologist, 60(6), 601–614. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.60.6.601
- Waddell, C., McEwan, K., Shepherd, C. A., Offord, D. R., & Hua, J. M. (2005). A public health strategy to improve the mental health of Canadian children. Canadian journal of psychiatry. Revue canadienne de psychiatrie, 50(4), 226–233. https://doi.org/10.1177/070674370505000406
The views expressed are that of the expert alone.
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