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Suspecting a child has depression but is at a loss?

Psychologist’s Suggestion: Learn to Act Like a Detective

The prevalence of depression in young children and adolescents (6 to 17 years old) is increasing. According to the Hospital Authority’s statistics, there is a 143% increase in the number of sufferers across 5 years; from 350 sufferers in 2013/14 to 850 in 2018/19. Although there is a genetic predisposition to depression, environmental and other factors are larger contributors. Depression in young children and adolescents is usually triggered by the stressors or difficulties they encounter, such as parents’ expectations, friendships, academic performance or boy-girl relationships. When parents observe that their child’s emotions or behaviours appear unusual, persistently across time, it is advisable to consult a psychologist promptly. It is noteworthy that youths are likely to resist seeking help from mental health professionals. In this article, counsellors from The Companions will share tips on how to address this.

To cope with the increasingly high expectations from society, parents and schools inevitably have to7i raise the bar for the younger generation. As such, children and adolescents often experience stress, making them vulnerable to depression. If a child’s emotions or behaviours appear persistently unusual, parents should take note. Examples of unusual behaviours are: becoming withdrawn and speaking less in school; difficulty to concentrate during class, decline in academic performance; reluctance to go to school or skipping classes; feeling fatigued often and no longer enjoys some of the activities the child used to like; or overreacting when they are with their peers, to the extent of throwing a tantrum when he or she gets too emotional.

Parents Must Try to Remain Calm

Parents should also observe if there are changes in their child’s appetite and sleep quality, or if their child is unwilling to go to bed on a frequent basis. Some children may behave normally in school, but become a different person at home where they may throw tantrums often, behave nonchalantly to their family members or ignoring them. They may also often stay in their room, playing video games or surf the internet behind closed door and enjoy living in their own world. Some children may have false beliefs or negative thoughts, or start to self-harm by cutting their wrist or hitting their head against the wall etc.

If you suspect that your child is suffering from depression, see a psychiatrist or a psychologist for an evaluation as soon as possible. However, it can be challenging to bring an adolescent to seek help from a professional. Adolescents can be resistant as they go through a rebellious phase. Counsellors from The Companions advise that parents should remain calm when they are experiencing this situation. Act like a detective; first, make observations then start collecting details. Work slowly, step by step to support the child in opening up to you.

A Mind Full of False Beliefs

We have a case of an adolescent who had a bad relationship with his mother. He felt that his mother nagged at him too much, hence spent most of his time in his room playing video games. His father noticed that his behaviour changed and had an opportunity to have a deep conversation with him while playing a video game. Through their conversation, the father found that his son had many false beliefs – such as thinking that all bad people have to die, and one can kill others by just informing the victim. The father did not correct or reprimand the son immediately on the spot. Instead, he started to observe his son more keenly and followed him around. Once, the adolescent ran away from home. Fortunately, his father found him. The father acted as if he was passing by the spot where his son was and sat down to have a chat. He finally managed to bring his son home by claiming that he was hungry and wanted to go home for a meal. The father continued with his efforts by encouraging his wife to change how she interacted with their son. At the same time, he kept finding opportunities to talk about “killing others” while playing video games with his son. Gradually, the adolescent become more willing to share his thoughts and feelings. He also became interested to seek professional help after hearing from his father that there are experts who can answer his questions through video games. As a result, the father successfully brought him to see a counsellor.

Parents Should Avoid an “Ostrich Mentality”

It is not easy for parents to manage a child who is having emotional problems, and not all parents can handle this effectively. Parents can consider consulting a counsellor first to address the situation. Based on the details of the parents’ observations, the experts can guide parents on what they can do to manage their affected child and steps to take to convince the child to receive professional help. Parents should not adopt an “Ostrich Mentality” and avoid the issue due to the stigma related to mental health disorders. This is because when depression becomes severe, it can lead to suicidal thoughts.

Change Yourself First to Help a Child with Depression

  1. Accept the fact that your child is suffering from an emotional problem.
  2. Reassess the relationship between yourself and all other family members.
  3. Even if you love your child dearly, admit that there are gaps in how you have treated your child in the past and that you will have to make some adjustments moving forward.
  4. Show that you care, instead of reprimanding and scolding, to draw your child closer to you.

The Companions
Dr. Vinci Cheung