When talking to your young child about depression, you may worry about how to go about it and how she's already feeling. Try not to worry about explaining all of the details of depression from start to finish. Instead, just let your child know what depression is, how it will affect her, and who she can come to for help. Allowing her to ask questions will keep her feeling supported through her recovery.
What Is Depression?
You never want to confuse your child, which will just cause her to get nervous or tune out. Younger children may not understand complex terms like "depression" or "emotions." Instead, try explaining these concepts using words that a young child can truly understand.
- For Example: "Depression can make you feel sad, blue, tired, or scared."
A young child or preschooler is not likely to grasp concepts of brain chemistry, genetics or environmental factors that may contribute to depression. If your child wants to know how or why she has depression, assure her that depression is not something she caught or can give to someone else. It is still an illness that some people get and some people do not.
- For Example: "You cannot catch depression from anyone else, nor can anyone catch it from you."
It is also important to remember that some children may feel that they are responsible for what is happening to them, or the hurt that it may bring to others. This is particularly an issue for younger children. It is worth emphatically reassuring your child that she is not to blame.
How Will It Affect Me?
A young child may worry that she will be left out of things because of her depression and/or treatment, or want to know if others have depression too. Assure your child that while her siblings or friends may not be depressed or attend therapy, it does not mean that she is being punished. You may also point out how being different is not necessarily bad. Everyone is different, and that is what makes people special.
- For Example: "Your brother is not feeling blue so he does not need to take medicine. Remember when he had the flu and was home sick for a week, but you did not get sick? This is just like that. You are both special to me and we all want you to feel better."
A young child may hear that she will need to see a doctor and immediately get upset. She may only associate her doctor with shots, needles, and feeling sick. Try explaining what to expect from treatment, step-by-step. You may even refer to your child's psychiatrist, psychologist, or counselor by their first name instead of their formal title (if they agree) to ease her fears.
- For Example: "When you go to see Anne, you will just be talking to her about your feelings for about an hour each week. She will ask you some questions, and you should answer the best that you can. You will never get in trouble or be graded on your answers."
Who Can I Talk To?
Your child may already know that she can talk to you about anything, but it never hurts to reiterate it. She may not fully understand her emotions, so encourage her to describe her moods to you. You may suggest other people who are familiar with her diagnosis that she can talk to about her feelings, like a school counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist, or pediatrician.
- For Example: "I really like talking with you, and you can talk to me whenever you want to. If you want to talk to someone while you are in school, you can talk to Mrs. Smith, the school counselor, or Anne in therapy or on the phone."
Allow your child to ask questions, and answer the best that you can. Write down any questions that you cannot answer, and ask your child's mental health provider as soon as possible.
Also, ask periodically during the discussion if she understands what you have said. If she doesn't, go back and try to re-explain using simpler terms.
- For Example: "What questions do you have about your medicine so far?"
You may need to allow your young child some time to process what you have discussed. Make a point of checking back in frequently and asking if she has any new questions or concerns.
- For Example: "Do you remember how we talked about feeling sad and blue and depression? Do you have any questions or concerns that you'd like to talk to me about now?"
For a young child, it is important to be available to answer questions and provide support. However, try not to stress over the details of the discussion. If you encourage communication, your child will know that she can come to you when she has new questions or concerns in the future.
Communicating With Your Child. American Academy of Pediatrics. Accessed: 10/05/2010. http://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/family-dynamics/communication-discipline/pages/Communicating-with-Your-Child.aspx
Feelings Need Check Ups Too. American Academy of Pediatrics. Accessed: October 10, 2010.