How to Help Your Kid After They're Diagnosed With Depression
"It is normal to feel overwhelmed about having a child with depression."
Your teen is diagnosed with depression—what do you do?
You may start to panic or you could brush it off as just being something all teens deal with, but that's not the way to go about this.
Maintaining your composure, asking the right questions, and seeking the proper advice from the best professionals is the route to pursue. There is, however, much more to it than that.
For a deeper dive into everything you need to do and keep in mind post-diagnosis, we reached out to Dr. Kate Harkness—a professor in the Department of Psychology at Queen's University and and expert in adolescent depression—for insight on how to appropriately handle this type of situation.
How do you make sure your child is properly diagnosed?
When it comes to making sure your teen is diagnosed properly, Dr. Harkness urges reaching out to qualified professionals.
"The people most qualified to make a formal diagnosis of depression would be specialists in child psychology or psychiatry," she says. "However, a family doctor is often the best place to start, as they are aware of your child’s history, can help rule out any medical problems that might be masking as depression, and can provide a referral to a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist."
Once you find the right licensed professional, they'll spend quite a bit of time getting to know you and your child, along with the behavior your child has been exhibiting. Generally, these types of assessments will take some time, so be prepared.
"When seeing a specialist, this person will do an assessment that will typically include an interview with your child and you about your child’s symptoms and associated problems they’ve been having at home and school," she states. "Your child and you may also be asked to fill out some questionnaires. To ensure a proper diagnosis, this comprehensive assessment should take at least a couple of hours and should be performed by someone who is competent to assess and diagnosis children or youth. Make sure the professional you are seeing is licensed to practice in your jurisdiction."
What should a parent do immediately after their teen is diagnosed with depression?
Once your child has been diagnosed, it's easy to feel overwhelmed with trying to figure out what to do next. Dr. Harkness notes that the professional who evaluated your teen will work to develop a plan for you to follow post-diagnosis.
"If the family has consulted a professional competent to practice with children or youth, this person will have a follow-up plan for treatment and/or referral in place that he/she will discuss with the family," she says. "Therefore, what families should do immediately after their child is diagnosed is to talk with the diagnosing professional about his/her recommendations for treatment and follow those recommendations if they seem appropriate."
Even more important than next steps, according to Dr. Harkness, is making sure everyone walks away knowing exactly what depression is and why it was diagnosed. Though it may feel terrifying and unsettling, it's best to look at the diagnosis from a positive perspective.
"It is also important to leave this meeting sure that everyone (including the child) understands what depression is, why it is being diagnosed, and what the plan for treatment referral is," she notes. "Parents should make sure they ask a lot of questions in front of the child (in case the child doesn’t feel comfortable asking questions), and should also leave lots of time for the child to ask questions. The diagnosing professional can suggest reading material at an appropriate level for the family and the child. Receiving a diagnosis is a time for optimism—this means that you and your child now know what is going on and can pursue effective treatment. Therefore, you should try to avoid expressing anger, disappointment, fear about the diagnosis in front of your child. It is normal to feel overwhelmed about having a child with depression, and if this is the case you should (separately) ask for resources that you can use to support yourself in caring for your child (there are lots of such resources available). Similarly, you should try to avoid placing blame on the child or your spouse/partner for your child’s depression. This sort of blame will not help your child in any way with his or her treatment. It is very easy for children and teens with depression to feel guilty about their depression and the effect they are having on the family. Guilt is actually a very common symptom of depression, particularly in children, so parents should not reinforce this."
How do you talk to your kids about depression?
Timing is the most important factor when talking to your kids about depression.
"The first step is finding an appropriate time to start the question," Dr. Harkness says. "This time should not be right after an outburst or fight/argument. It should be a time when you would generally talk to your child about any other topic—that is, a neutral time when your child is well-fed, well-rested, and potentially open to talking with you."
Another important thing to remember is this conversation won't be a one-and-done discussion. Multiple heart-to-hearts may need to be had.
"Parents should also be open to the fact that this likely won’t be just one conversation where all will be revealed and dealt with," Dr. Harkness states. "This might be a conversation that parents will need to start multiple times. Some of these conversations might just be a few minutes, some might be longer. Be patient, as forcing your child to open up will likely have the opposite effect."
Patience is key when having these discussions, and so is maintaining a calm tone while talking with your child about their diagnosis. When in doubt, talk about your own experiences growing up and all the problems you dealt with to get your teen to open up.
"Starting the initial conversations with a tone of casual concern is also better than a tone of anxious worry, as children who think their parents will be scared by their symptoms will not want to talk about them," Dr. Harkness notes. "Finally, opening by asking about a specific thing you have noticed (e.g., 'I’ve noticed that you haven’t been playing your guitar lately…' or 'I’ve noticed that you’ve been up a lot in the night…') may be easier for a child to address than general questions (e.g., 'How have you been feeling?'). Sharing your own experience about being a kid can also help children open up. That way, you’re having a back-and-forth conversation instead of seeming like you’re grilling your child."
What should parents know about treatment?
After the diagnosis, it's important to ask how you and your family can help your depressed teen. According to Dr. Harkness, doing so is an integral part of the treatment process.
"Short-term goal is getting your child an appropriate assessment, diagnosis, and referral for treatment from a competent, licensed professional," she says. "Other things that parents will want to be thinking, and asking, about include how they and other family members (siblings) should be supporting the child at home. And, whether the child will need support at school, and if there is anyone available to provide that support."
Depression isn't something that can be cured over night, which is why Dr. Harkness notes parents should always keep that in mind.
"Parents should also be aware that even with successful treatment, depression can take some time to get better, and recovery is not always a linear process," she states. "Also, not all treatments work for all people. Therefore, some people with depression need to try more than one type of treatment to find one that works. Parents should check in with their child’s treatment provider regularly for updates on progress."
What are some resources parents should turn to for help?
Again, the family doctor is always the best bet, but there are plenty of other resources out there for parents to turn to when they need extra help and advice.
"The family doctor or treatment provider are the best sources for these resources, as they are often community specific," Dr. Harkness says. "However, if you are looking just for general reading material, USA.gov and the National Institute of Mental Health provide evidence-based information about youth depression."