Now, more than ever, parents understand the severity and likelihood of their children being diagnosed with depression or anxiety (or both). It's a scary thought for any parent, that their child could be suffering in silence when there are so many ways these illnesses can be managed and treated. So, it's important to discuss these topics before they become a problem, but it's not exactly easy to teach a small child about the complexities of brain chemistry and a sadness that makes them ache to their core (they can't even drink out of a cup without a lid yet, how can they be expected to understand depression and anxiety?!).
In order to get your child comfortable with these illnesses, and prepare them to recognize when they may feel them developing, parents need to find age-appropriate ways to help their child understand these big issues in little ways.
10 Toddler: Help Them Identify What They Are Feeling
Parents of toddlers know firsthand how complicated and fragile their emotions are. Give them the wrong color cup and it's like you've ruined their entire life. Part of the problem is that they aren't capable of communicating what they want and how they feel at such a young age. In these moments of utter despair over something completely illogical, try your best to stifle your laughter and help them identify what they're feeling by saying something like, "Oh, are you disappointed because you wanted the blue cup instead of the orange?".
9 Toddler: Show Empathy
It's really hard not to roll your eyes and lose your patience at your child as she's throwing her full bowl of cereal on the ground because you gave her the wrong spoon. She should absolutely face consequences for her actions but she should also be shown some empathy. Tell her you're sorry she's angry and frustrated, offer her a hug once she's had a chance to calm down, and let her have some space to process how she feels. These moments of empathy will train her to come to you when she feels bad because she can trust that you won't berate her or make her feel bad for having emotions that aren't necessarily positive.
8 Pre-School: Validate Their Big Feelings
If your little one comes home from pre-school and is feeling awful, help them drill down what's bothering them. Anger is an easier emotion to display than hurt or even exhaustion. So, help your child figure out where the behavior is coming from, and then let them know that their emotional response makes sense, such as "I'm so sorry your feelings were hurt by your friends today, I'd feel the same way" or "I know it's tough to be away from the house all day, I also don't like being separated from you". This will continue to build that trust and understanding with your child so that they will come to you when the big things happen later.
7 Pre-School: Tell Them It's Okay To Be Sad
How many times has your child come home from school in a serious mood and you're just sitting there like "what in the world is happening?!". If you suspect your child is sad over something (anything from "my friend stole my crayon" to "I don't like my new teacher") assure them that it's okay to be sad and offer them a hug or an ear to listen. It's tough to see your kid sad and parents don't want their kids to feel pain, but sending the message of "oh, don't be sad over that" is diminishing their feelings and could lead to them feeling ashamed of what makes them feel sad. Don't put pressure on your child to never feel sad because it makes you uncomfortable to see them that way - help them learn that it's okay and it will pass.
6 Elementary: Explain Your Own Self-Care Routines Or Coping Mechanisms
Even if you haven't been formally diagnosed with depression or anxiety, you likely experience similar symptoms from time to time and have to manage them. If, one night, you're filling your bathtub for a relaxing soak and your little one asks what you're doing, tell them that baths help you calm down and stay happy. Encourage your child to do something that makes them feel happy when they have bad days - this will teach them healthy ways to manage negative feelings at a young age so that when they're teenagers they will already have coping strategies and won't resort to substances to help them feel better.
5 Elementary: Talk About The Difference Between Being Scared And Worry
A panic attack feels like terror running through your veins. Essentially, the body is responding to a perceived threat with the fight or flight reaction, even if the person is not actually in danger. A little kid may not know how to logically look at the "threat" and determine if it's real or just anxiety taking over. Help them understand the difference between worry and anxiety whenever you see it start to pop up. If your child is acting stressed out about a fight with a friend, explain that what he's feeling is worry that things will get worse or that he's lost a friend and that legitimate fear is your body's way of protecting you from danger. This may help him keep his worries in context as they become larger later in life.
4 Middle School: Explain What Depression And Anxiety Are
By middle school, your kid is probably ready to have a real-talk about what depression and anxiety actually are. This is a good time to start to lay out what these illnesses entail because this is the age where hormones are going to go crazy, they'll feel some intense emotional highs and lows, and their friends will be going through it simultaneously so no one is safe. Give your child the knowledge they need to help them determine if what they're going through is just the natural rollercoaster of puberty or a long-term feeling that needs some attention, and of course, be open-minded if they come to you about it and not dismissive.
3 Middle School: Offer To Answer Questions Or To Let Them Ask A Doctor
As much as parents want their kids to think they know everything and will come to them with every question they have, it's not reality. When it comes to things like anxiety and depression, your child may not want to confide in you because whatever it is they are feeling is making them feel vulnerable. If that's the case, and you're seeing them struggling, offer to take them to their doctor to chat and stay supportive of whatever the doctor suggests in terms of management and treatment. Even though you want to know everything going on in your child's lfe, they may not feel the same - and that needs to be okay.
2 High School: Share Your Own Experience (Or Have Another Person Close To Them Do It)
If you have experienced depression or anxiety, this is a good time to talk to your child about the harsh realities of those times. If you haven't personally felt that way, try to find someone your child trusts to share their experiences with them. Depression can be dark and scary and your child needs to know they're not alone in those moments and that they can (and will) get through them with support. Anxiety can spiral and snowball, building on itself until it's so hard to manage it causes a legitimate breakdown, tell your kid that you know how that feels and that you don't want them to get to that point, and offer compassion if they're already there.
1 High School: Do Regular Check-Ins
At a certain point, you've done all you can do in terms of informing your child about depression and anxiety. When that time comes, back off and let them know that you'll do some regular check-ins with them to just monitor their emotional and mental health. Assure them that these check-ins are to benefit them and to help you determine if it's time to get extra support (like medication or therapy) for them. Send the message that you're not trying to intervene or know the ins and outs of their social life, you just want to look out for their well being and, if needed, provide them with someone to talk to who can help them through tough times without judging them.