Depression is an ugly killer, a ruiner of lives, and a sad reality for millions of people. Depression affects 5% of the entire world population at any given time.
As much as we try to ignore it or push it under the rug, depression is prevalent in our society. We are talking big steps in recognition and ending the stigma. But we obviously need to do more.
I think one of the best steps we can take is to talk to our kids about depression. They will either know someone with depression or experience depression themselves. It seems that giving them knowledge and tools for depression will only help.
I had my first depressive episode at 11 and it was almost a full year before my first actual diagnosis. At the time, I didn’t know about depression. I didn’t know what was happening in my body and I didn’t have the words or tools to express the utter hopelessness I felt day after day.
So I didn’t try.
I lived in a house with a loving family, played with my friends regularly, and was performing just fine in school. On the outside, I’m sure there were only few signs that I was suffering. But on the inside, all of the symptoms were there.
Sometimes I wonder how it would have been different had I known about depression.
My kids are growing up with 2 parents that have experienced depression and other forms of mental health issues. Their risk of experiencing anxiety, depression, or something else is greater than the average person. So I know it’s my duty to inform them.
I want them to know what depression is, the symptoms, and at least a few resources or places to turn to for help. If they ever have a friend come to them in confidence, I want them to be ready.
Why Should I Talk to My Kids about Depression?
I get it, depression is a hard topic to approach. Especially with kids. Especially with young kids.
But depression isn’t just something we know about instinctively. If we don’t talk to our kids about depression and they aren’t exposed to the idea of depression elsewhere, then they won’t know what it is.
And this becomes problematic when they experience depression but don’t understand what is happening in their brain and body.
When we give kids the words and tools to express what is happening in their bodies, we enable them to take positive actions.
Another benefit of talking to kids about depression is that it helps to lower the stigma. Mental health still has a stigma today which prevents many people from getting help. But the more that people know and understand about mental health, the more we reduce that stigma.
At what age should we talk to our kids about depression?
At all ages. Start talking about mental health like you’d talk about all health. Kids don’t need the heartbreaking details at 2 but you can always mention when someone has sickness in their brain.
If you have anxiety or depression, talk about it! I know that’s hard. It’s hard to be so vulnerable, even with our kids.
But at a minimum, I would start the discussion at least a few years before they hit puberty. Read some of the suggested books, talk about mental health, talk about the feelings that come with depression.
There isn’t an age that is too young to talk about mental health but make sure to keep it age appropriate. Kids don’t need details about suicide but they do need details about emotions.
So here are my 7 Steps to Talking About Depression With Your Kids
- Read a book. There are not a lot of books about depression for kids but there are a few great ones that can jump-start the conversation. If you’ve never experienced depression yourself or you find it hard to talk about, the books are a great place to start. They tend to explain depression from a kids point of view which can be different than an adolescent or adult. I’ve included a book list a bit further down.
- Watch Movies. There are movies that portray depression but you have to be choosey. Some are a bit too glorifying of things like suicide and others get it all wrong. But a movie can at least jump-start the discussion on mental health.
- Respond always. We tend to think we can start talking with our kids when it’s important. But to them, it’s always been important. Listen to your kids even with it’s a conversation on which teddy bear is the best or how this video game character reminds them of a cloud. Show your kids that you are listening to the little things so they trust that you will listen to the big things. It’s never too late to start. If your kids are older and you haven’t been doing this, just start now.
- Start the conversation. Get past the awkwardness and just talk about it. Be open and vulnerable without being scary. I’ve shared bits and pieces of my own struggle with my kids. Finding the line of sharing enough and not sharing too much is tricky, but it’s a line everyone has to feel out for themselves.
- Practice and share healthy self-care habits. I’m not talking about bubble baths and champagne. Self-care habits are what we do all the time to stay healthy. (If you’re not making time for self-care every day, you should be! Here are my tips for fitting it in every day). Kids need to see positive examples in their lives so make sure you are practicing health self-care, too!
- Keep the conversation going. Don’t stop if/when it gets uncomfortable for you. Keep talking about it, keep being open, keep listening (especially the listening). Work through your own discomfort. I promise this conversation will be much less painful than a conversation after depression has started.
- Give them tools. Talk about what people do when they do feel depressed. Discuss the books and workbooks, therapists, medications, and general daily practices. Give them some tools they can access without your help in case they want to go it alone first. Perhaps buy some self-help books for kids and teens and leave them on the bookshelf. Search for some cognitive behavioral techniques and adopt them into your everyday habits. You don’t need to be depressed to use CBT to your advantage.
Book Ideas for Talking to Kids about Depression
As I said before, there are simply not a lot of books for kids about depression. And some of them I find problematic for multiple reasons. I wanted to create a list of books that fit two specific categories – they had to be about depression of kids/teens and they had to deal with the depression in a healthy way.
I specifically didn’t want any books where someone else was given control over their depression. Kids already have a tendency of internalizing other peoples feelings and blaming themselves for events they have no control over. Kids should never be made to feel that they can bring someone else out of a depression because they will blame themselves if it doesn’t work.
So I found three books I havea feel comfortable sharing, two picture books and one chapter book.
The Princess and the Frog, Danny and the Blue Cloud, and Some Kind of Happiness.
This is my absolute favorite book for starting the discussion on depression with your kids. It’s a really good book itself despite the sad storyline.
What I love about this book:
- Explains the feeling of depression in pictures and words
- Explains how others don’t really see it
- Includes multiple methods for overcoming depression (talking with friends, talking with a professional, medication, participating in fun activities)
- It includes that the depression may come back, but now the princess knows how to handle it.
This book is just so well done. It easily tops my list.
What I like about this book:
- Danny is said to have been born with his cloud which I think is a great way to alleviate the idea that he caused his own depressions
- It mentions how some days the cloud isn’t so big and other days the cloud is overwhelming
- Danny finds positive ways to overcoming his depression
I wish Danny did a few more things to work on his depression but I do think this is a good conversation starter.
This book serves a different sort of purpose than the picture books. They’re meant to start a conversation but this book is meant for older kids (8-12).
The main character in this book suffers from depression and the way she describes it is artfully done. But I especially like it because I feel like this is exactly how a teenager or older child would describe depression. The book really brings the idea to life and it is well written.
The Bookmark Idea for Depression
One of the hardest parts of having depression is that depression is a cunning liar. Depression will tell you that no one cares, that people are better off without your problems, and that you’re exaggerating. It’ll find little ways to confirm these feelings – like when you call someone and they don’t answer. Depression will tell you they intentionally didn’t pick up because they don’t want to talk to you. In reality, they probably just missed your phone call.
But since depression is so cunning, it makes reaching out really hard. Not only do you have to battle the stigma of mental health, but you have to battle the lies.
So I thought a simple, non-verbal, non-threatening method of reaching out could be a step in the right direction. I’ve created this bookmark that is a sign for ‘I need you’.
The idea is that someone can leave this bookmark in a place you’ll find it and you’ll know they need you. They might not be feeling strong enough or safe enough to say it in person.
Just choose a bookmark and keep it in a certain place. Make sure your kids know where it is, and inform anyone else that might be around. Then explain the rules:
- Present the bookmark or leave it somewhere that it’ll be found quickly. One simple way to hand it off when others are around would be to place it in a book and hand it over.
- I will come immediately, no questions asked.
- It will be a no judgment conversation – a safe zone for talking about depression
- It doesn’t have to be an emergency.
We haven’t had time to test this out (that will ultimately take years) but it feels like a good start to me.
So talk to your kids about depression. There’s no better time than today.