How to Help A Chronically Sad Child

Every parent shares the same priority: They just want their child to be happy. They know, of course, that no one can realistically remain happy all of the time, but this doesn’t make them any less protective of their child’s well-being. Naturally, then, few things are as distressing as realizing one’s child is persistently sad. Though worry and frustration are seen as normal parts of growing up, sadness confronts the innocent, jubilant image of childhood.

Witnessing repeated episodes of intense sadness—which may have no apparent cause—can make parents feel helpless, anxious, and guilty. Even if a parent is doing nothing “wrong,” it’s very difficult to avoid self-blame in this situation. Guilt is seldom helpful, however, so it’s important to maintain a healthy perspective: Most children get the blues from time to time, just like most adults do. Furthermore, though depressive disorders occur less frequently in school-aged children (vs. the high depression rates seen in teenagers and adults), childhood depression does happen. About three percent of younger kids develop major depressive episodes, while many more experience milder forms of depression (e.g., dysthymia). Because these conditions usually arise due to chemical imbalances in the body, your child’s sadness probably has nothing to do with your parenting skills. Likewise, sometimes kids get sad due to circumstances that are not within a parent’s control. Physical illness (in your child or someone close to him), learning disabilities, social problems at school, family strife, and other unavoidable hurdles can take a toll on your child’s mental health. Finally, some children are just more sensitive than others. To a bright, sensitive kid, small setbacks—like failing a test or having an argument with a friend—can feel catastrophic.


Recognizing the Signs of Chronic Sadness

Though parents can’t usually prevent chronic sadness, there’s a lot you can do to support your child while he navigates these challenging waters. First, however, you’ll need to learn how to differentiate depressive symptoms from a temporary case of the blues. Children with chronic sadness usually exhibit one or more of the following behavioural changes:

  • Increased irritability and a tendency to lash out with little provocation.
  • Crying “at the drop of a hat.”
  • Chronic fatigue and problems sleeping.
  • Changes in appetite.
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities.
  • Social withdrawal.
  • A sudden decline in academic performance and/or disinterest in school.
  • Complaining of numerous “phantom illnesses,” aches, and pains that have no physical cause.
  • Poor self-esteem.
  • Preoccupation with loss or death.


Handling Your Child’s Emotions

Not all of the symptoms of chronic sadness are easy to live with. Some, like angry outbursts and the rejection of comfort, can make parents feel frustrated and shunned. Complaining of phantom illnesses may look like a simple attempt to shirk responsibility. This is why the first step in dealing with any chronically sad child is to calm down, take a step back, and remind yourself that his behaviour isn’t personal or malicious. You should also be prepared to let go of shame and blame; don’t automatically assume your child’s emotions are your fault, your partner’s fault, the school’s fault, etc. Though it’s normal to want an easy answer for your child’s complex feelings, such a thing seldom exists. Instead of looking for root causes right away, you should keep the following things in mind:


1. Your child is not sad all of the time.

Kids have a very black and white way of thinking, so it’s not uncommon for even mildly depressed kids to claim they’re sad “all of the time,” when in reality, they’re just having a bad day. As a parent, it’s important to take your child’s feelings seriously while still recognizing that the kids has a tendency to exaggerate. When a child (or an adult, for that matter) is in a bad mood, the brain blocks out positive memories. It focuses on the problems at hand instead. You should therefore strive for balance in your assessment of the situation. Think of all of the times you’ve seen your child enjoy something—even a little thing, like a hug or warm meal—and know that he still experiences joy and satisfaction. Once you’ve validated your child’s sad feelings, try gently reminding him of the happy moments you’ve shared with him recently. This can reactivate areas of the brain associated with positive memories.


2. Sadness is not a life sentence.

Childhood depression is highly treatable. Your child’s brain is still very malleable, so he’s naturally more receptive to treatment than an adult would be. With early intervention, your child stands a good chance recovering. Even if your child’s depression is purely physiological, the development of better coping skills will help him tremendously.


3. You can help your child.

Even if you can’t cheer your child up right away, you can still make a profound difference in his life. Providing a calm, loving home environment, connecting your child with a therapist, and helping him build a solid support network can all work wonders to improve his baseline mood.


Nine Ways to Help Your Child Cope

In addition to finding professional help for your child, you should employ the following strategies at home:

  1. Practice active listening. Active listening focuses on empathy, rather than giving unsolicited advice or trying to change how your child feels. Listen to your child when he describes his feelings, let him know you understand those feelings, then ask him what he thinks might help him feel better.
  1. Be patient. Don’t let your sense of urgency dominate your interactions with your child. Yes, you might want him to feel better as soon as possible, but these things can’t be rushed. Don’t get frustrated (with your child or yourself) if he doesn’t “cheer up” despite your best efforts.
  1. Get to know your child’s triggers. Even if your child’s depression is caused by biology (and not environment), there are probably external triggers that can make it worse. While some of these triggers may be unavoidable, others can be modified. Some children are triggered by hearing the news, for example, because most of it is negative. Turning off the radio or TV when your child is around could be a simple way to reduce his sadness. Teaching kids to think critically about the kind of media they consume is also a good way to mitigate triggers. While you can’t force your child to stay away from specific video games or shows, you can ask him how they make him feel. If your child notices that he feels upset after playing a violent game, for instance, he might decide to stop playing it of his own free will.
  1. Don’t “over discuss” negative events or feelings. Some parents, in their anxiety, develop a habit of regularly bringing up their child’s depression. Others allow a short venting session to become a rehash of everything bad that’s ever occurred. These patterns, while they spring from good intentions, simply serve to reinforce a negative mindset.

Though listening to your child is extremely important, knowing when to put the brakes on negative thinking is also a valuable skill. Let your child come to you when he wants to discuss his feelings, while reminding him regularly that you’re always there if he wants to talk. When your child starts turning a healthy vent into a downward spiral of complaining, try to gently distract him. Offering to do something fun with your child—like playing a game or reading a story together—can encourage his brain to “switch gears” into more positive thinking.

  1. Make gratitude exercises a part of your daily routine. Each day, sit down with your child and ask him to write out five good things that happened that day, while you do the same. You should also take the time to point out positive things as they happen. Remarking on how nice the sunset looks, or how kind your neighbour was for doing you a favour, can remind your child to focus on the uplifting aspects of life.
  1. Create a support network around your child. Though your child might not always be up to socializing with peers, it’s important to build social connections wherever possible. Learn where and how your child bonds best with peers. Some depressed kids socialize more readily in their own homes, for example, because that’s where they feel safest. Inviting other kids over for movie nights or sleepovers is a great way to prevent these kids from becoming isolated. Other children bond primarily over shared interests. For them, clubs and groups devoted to said interests provide accessible social opportunities.
  1. Proactively work at building your child’s self-esteem. Sadness often robs people of a sense of meaning and purpose. However, if your child knows he’s genuinely good at something, he can fight back against these feelings of emptiness. Try to nurture your child’s interests and let him know that what he does is important.
  1. Treat the body, not just the mind. Though there is no one miracle diet that can “cure” psychological distress, maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help. Physical activity, adequate sleep, and excellent nutrition can all reduce the symptoms of depression.
  1. Work with your child’s therapist to develop a list of useful coping strategies. Different children require different coping mechanisms. Some kids benefit from mindfulness, while others need active outlets. Some kids do well with immersive activities that distract them from their sadness, while others need a lot of “quiet time.” Talk to your child’s therapist about the kind of coping strategies that are likely to mesh with his unique temperament. Make a list of these tools and be ready to use them where needed. Don’t forget to ask your child for his feedback, too. School-aged kids often have enough self-insight to generate meaningful solutions for their emotional problems.

Finally, remember to take care of yourself, not just your child. Parenting a chronically sad child can be a stressful and emotionally draining experience. To maintain your patience and ability to persevere—two qualities your child is relying on—you’ll need a support network of your own. You’ll also need to take breaks from time to time, both to rejuvenate and to get perspective. Give yourself permission to do these things, for your sake and the sake of your child.


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