I bend over a stack of empty pots to turn on the hose when I see her–a baby opossum. Not so small that she belongs in her mother’s pouch, just big enough, the size of my hand, to be exploring the world on her own. And here she is, fallen into a deep pot with slick sides and only a few inches of dirt in the bottom. She looks up at me, I swear, with pleading eyes. And then her mouth opens, whether to cry out or be fed, I can’t tell. Perhaps both.
What can I do to rescue her? First, I think big. The Wildlife Way station? Gosh, how does one catch and transport a baby opossum? Then, I think small. Perhaps a dish of water. She may be parched after this ordeal. The opossum just gazes at me, opening and closing her mouth to utter some desperate thing I cannot understand. Perhaps I can just tip the pot on it’s side and let her go free, to find her way back to mom or shelter or somewhere, before it gets too light, too hot, too dangerous for her nocturnal soul. Gently I lay the pot down and off she skitters, I trust, to find her life.
Sometimes we get stuck in an empty pot. Sometimes our children get stuck. Trapped and alone. No foreseeable way out. Wanting nourishment and comfort. One frequently asked question from parents and caregivers is, “How do I know if my child’s distress is normal or worrisome?” How do we know if our child needs a “big rescue” or if a little one will do?
Truth is, kids can get stuck in patterns of depression at earlier ages than you might expect. In the August issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, researchers concluded that major depressive disorder (MDD) occurs in children as young as 3 years old. Michael Yapko, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and international expert on treating depression, points out the importance of recognizing “opportunities to teach the skills to kids that can not only reduce depression, but even prevent it. Depression’s rate is rising among young people, and only aggressive education and prevention can slow the rising tide of suffering.”
May is Children’s Mental Health month. As a public service, I’ve pulled together some information and resources to help families regarding the mental health issues of depression and youth suicide.
What Should Parents Look For?
Information on children and depression, including this list of warning signs is available through the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Young people with depression may have a hard time coping with everyday activities and responsibilities, have difficulty getting along with others, and suffer from low self-esteem. Signs of depression often include:
• sadness that won’t go away;
• hopelessness, boredom;
• unexplained irritability or crying
• loss of interest in usual activities;
• changes in eating or sleeping habits;
• alcohol or substance abuse
• missed school or poor school performance;
• threats or attempts to run away from home;
• outbursts of shouting, complaining;
• reckless behavior;
• aches and pains that don’t get better with treatment;
• thoughts about death or suicide.
Adolescents with major depression are likely to identify themselves as depressed before their parents suspect a problem. The same may be true for children.
Lisa Machoian, teacher, researcher, and therapist, has additional good advice for parents in her recent Daughters.com article on teen girls and depression.Symptoms of depression can really vary, but as parents, you should trust your instincts about whether something is “off.” You know your child better than anyone, and you have a sense of what her “baseline” or normal behavior is like. You might see changes in her school work and attitude, the way she dresses, the friends she picks, and different patterns in eating or sleeping. You can expect some irritability and moodiness from teens at times, but pay attention if the intensity seems unusual for her. Her comments can be applied to sons as well as daughters. (Full article available here: http://www.daughters.com/article/?id=74)
Things that can help:
Make Time to Listen It’s important for children and teens to have someone they can really talk to about how they feel. Open communication between children and parents and caregivers is fundamental to good mental health.
Communicate Have conversations about ways to handle stress and things to do when sad or angry feelings are challenging. Let your child know it’s ok to tell you about difficult feelings. Reassure them that you will help them find ways to cope.
Pay attention Stay tuned in to stresses your child may be facing. Notice changes in how your child is coping.
Help children develop coping strategies Skills can help prevent and alleviate depression. Help your child learn to deal with stress and strong feelings with strategies to calm, settle, and relax. Talk about when and how to reach out for help. The ways we think about things has a big impact on how we feel. Encourage your child to develop a positive, growth oriented mindset. Martin Seligman’s book,The Optimistic Child, and Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success both include great information on developing positive mindset skills.
Do not ignore suicidal talk or behavior It’s important to take suicidal threats and gestures seriously. Encourage your child to share about their distress. Seek professional help.
Teach (and role model) positive ways to manage stress Children and teens learn by our example. In addition, they are affected by our stress levels. Keep experimenting with ways to manage your own stress.
Seek professional help if you think you or your child might be depressed or thinking about suicide.
For more information, check out these resources:
Depression in adolescents and children
APA Help Center: Struggling with thoughts of suicide?
NIMH Suicide Statistics and Prevention
If you feel at risk of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This call is free and accessible 24 hours a day, every day. The service is available to anyone and all calls are confidential. You may call for yourself or for someone you care about.
Books by experts cited in this article:
Carol Dweck. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. (Ballantine Books, 2006).
Lisa Machoian. The Disappearing Girl: Learning the Language of Teenage Depression. (Dutton, 2005).
Martin Seligman. The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience. (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2009).
Michael Yapko. Breaking the Patterns of Depression. (Random House, 1997).
*An earlier version of this article was published in the Orange Cat.
Please note: Nothing in what you find here should be construed as medical advice pertinent to any individual. As is true with all written materials, and especially information found on the internet, you must be the judge of what appears valid and useful for yourself. Please take up any questions you might have regarding the content of this website with your psychotherapist or physician.