Understanding Depression: A Parent’s Guide

Wouldn’t it be nice to be a kid again? For those of us who have woken up one day to find ourselves grown up, it can be hard to understand why children and teens don’t love every moment of their young existences. Sure, we remember crying when we fell off a bike or feeling brokenhearted when a teenage romance went awry — but by and large, the younger years are the best ones, right?

Not for everyone, unfortunately. The reality is that many young people, including young children, adolescents, and teens, suffer from mental health issues. Among the most common of these issues is depression, which is a very real medical condition that affects nearly 7 percent of American adults. Tragically, depression can strike younger people, too.

When a child is depressed, it can be hard for a parent to understand. Depression isn’t easy to comprehend in the way that, for instance, a broken leg would be. And it can even cause individuals to behave in frustrating ways, which can make parents feel angry (or as if they should be angry) instead of sympathetic. It’s important to understand as much as you can about depression to help your depressed child. Here’s what every parent should know about the mental illness.

Depression isn’t just “being sad”

Your favorite sports team loses, or you watch a sad movie. “Ugh,” you might say to yourself, “I’m depressed.”

We use the term “depressed” like this all of the time. But when we do, it’s important to understand that we’re not using the word in the medical sense. By definition, depression isn’t just feeling sadwhen something sad happens. That’s normal brain function, not mental illness. Depression is a feeling of sadness — or, commonly, melancholy or emptiness — regularly.

Depression can be triggered or worsened by things that are sad, but it is only a clinical condition when it lasts for a long time and is not fundamentally caused by such things.

Depression has physiological roots

So what does cause depression? There are lots of factors, but it may help to understand that some of them are physiological. There are real differences in brain chemistry between a person who is depressed and a person who is not. That’s why prescription drugs that affect brain function, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), can be effective in counteracting some of depression’s worst symptoms.

So while you may not be able to “see” depression in the same way that you can see chicken pox or a broken leg, you can certainly trace the condition to physiological causes.

Your child can’t just “cheer up” — but you can help

Depression isn’t about being sad. It can’t be conquered by a walk in the woods or a bit of positive thinking. While therapy can be a big help, telling a depressed person to “cheer up” is not going to do much except frustrate them — and you.

But you can do things that help your child. The most important thing you can do is help them get professional help. When people are depressed, they should work with a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other mental health professional. You may also want to consider teenage depression rehab centers. Inpatient programs can give teens and other young people the space that they need to focus on themselves and their mental health.

Take your child’s mental health care as seriously as you would take their physical health care. Help them get professional help, and show them that you understand the seriousness of their illness. If you do these things, you can help your child treat their depression.