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Avoiding depression for kids and families

We're struggling a lot with depression and anxiety here; my husband's afflicted, and so is my oldest son. More and more lately, I remember my parents worrying about the depression of one of my sisters, who has thankfully grown into an emotionally-balanced adult. Around this time of the year, it's always compounded, and speaking from experience I know that trying to enjoy the holidays with a loved family member predicting the imminent end of the world as we know it is a challenge, indeed. Sara writes:

I've posted before asking for advice about depression-proofing my daughter. She's now five, an articulate, silly, curious, thoughtful kid with a decidedly negative personality. She seizes on the negative elements of every experience, and creates huge drama-tornadoes of misery and despair. I am very concerned that she is going to grow up into an unhappy adult, the person (we all know this person) who sucks the joy out of everything. We spend a lot of time talking to her about this, trying to guide her toward more positive ways of thinking ("you're talking about the problem; do you need help talking about a solution?"), etc., and it has helped a lot at various times, but... not now. Now it just seems to be making her feel worse, like not only is the (in my opinion) minor inconvenience that she's experiencing Absolutely The End of The World, but she's also A Terrible, Terrible Person because she can't look at it positively. It is clear to all of us that this is her personality, not just a phase (though being five is NOT easy, so there's some phase-y-ness in there, too). She is never going to be a glass-half-full person. I don't want to change who she is, and I don't actually think there's anything wrong with inclining to the negative. I just don't want it to be all she is.

So I need your help, community. How can I help my daughter grow up to be at least a not-miserable person? How can I help her learn more positive approaches without communicating to her that her feelings (and her basic personality) are wrong and bad?

What advice do you have for Sara? If you also have family members struggling with depression and anxiety, how do you find your way to a happy holiday for you and the more cheery members of your family?


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I applaud you for thinking about your daughter's emotional future. There might not be anything you can do, but it's definitely a compassionate mother who will try.

I don't know the answer, but when I look back on my childhood and my toughest emotional times, I always think that I would have done better if I had been more physically active. It sounds like a foofy remedy, but I think there's a lot to the idea that physical activity can release stress and make you feel better in spite of yourself. Especially if you're a person who is inclined to live inside one's head. (I am a musician/artist/thinker type--not at all a sports or fitness nut.)

If your daughter is already negative about things, she might have a low opinion of physical activity. But if there's any way to connect her to the joy of swimming, dancing, doing yoga, running around, whatever, she might be able to form healthier habits of the body and the mind. It's tough at first, so it's important to keep trying.

It also might not be too early to take her to a counselor. Someone with an outside perspective might be able to help both of you counter that negativity. I agree with you that negativity is a pretty reasonable response to many situations, but it's no way to live. And if you can show her that sooner rather than later, that's a gift of a lifetime. Or, it might be something she has to learn for herself--painfully, later on.

Best of luck to you.

My husband also has depression and I've found myself going on hyper-alert whenever our daughter goes through the negative phases. Things that have helped for us:

Remembering that our daughter is not my husband. I often project my feelings about his depression onto her when she gets sad & droopy, and it's not useful or fair.

Empathizing. When she's in negative land, our daughter does best when we go overboard on naming her feelings. "You're so sad. I understand how sad you are. That was such a bummer. You're so disappointed. I'm sorry that happened." For us, that tactic allows us to avoid the 'I'm a terrible person for having these feelings' feelings. Then we usually go into...

Reminding her that she's in charge of her emotions, not the other way around. We tell her that it's okay if she wants to feel sad. I like to feel sad too, sometimes, just to let stuff out. And if she's done with that emotion and wants to feel something different, she can do that. She's in charge of how she feels. Sometimes she'll come up and say something like "I'm done feeling yucky. Can you help me feel better?" and we'll cuddle and talk about something goofy.

Good luck and good for you for looking out for your child's mental health.

I am not an expert at all but my 2 cents - find something that she is good at (atleast she thinks she is very good at) and keep her life very busy with that activity - that definitely will build her self-esteem, make her feel good about herself - then the right kind of hormones kick in - and then she starts feeling better about herself and the world... My husband was incredibly negative about EVERYTHING, I just couldn't put up with him, my whole personality (bubbly, effervescent, etc) changed from just being with him - and then after 10 years of that, we had a baby - and now he feels like he is a good dad - and he's CHANGED 180 degrees.. I had no idea he could be so upbeat about everything. I am just sharing my own story here.. Also a 5 year old is still a baby, so dont jump to conclusions about her personality yet (not scolding you :-) she may be using big words without really meaning them (as an adult would)...

I second/third the comment about exercising. I am really prone to over-thinking, depression, and over self-deprecation. Exercising, especially running and weight training, reminds me of how strong I am. Being outside as often as possible, going for a few ten minute walks daily, bean bag relays across the house, indoor gyms, etc., are all great ways to get endorphins moving.

You might want to consider reading about the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). Dr. Elaine Aron has a book about Highly Sensitive Kids. I say this because I am a HSP. My depression seems to get worse when I introvert too much or get way over-stimulated. So there is a fine balance that has to be struck every day of the week. For years I thought I was depressed and/or anxious, but it was/is actually my temperament that poses the challenge of feeling mentally well.

I as well am no expert but I myself have fought depression my whole life. It probably wasn't until I went thru therapy in my early 20's, I went for seven years that I could see that for me it started when I was pretty little. Unfortunately my mother was so overwhelmed with taking care of us after my father left us that she just didn't notice what I was going thru. I too applaud you for listening to your daughter and understanding her and alllowing her to feel her feelings. As an adult I still battle depression from time to time. Therapy certainly did wonders for me as well as studying acting. It really was a wonderful outlet for all the feelings I had but didn't feel safe to express in my "real" life. Now I am taking acupuncture and that has helped immensely.

I suffer from depression and anxiety and have worried that my children (2 1/2 and 1) will, too. We recently moved into a new house, and my normally happy-go-lucky 2 1/2 year old immediately became terribly anxious, afraid of everything and unable to sleep. I attributed this to the unfamiliar surroundings and for a few weeks we tried to give her extra attention, hoping that as she got accustomed to her new environment, that here anxiety would decrease. After about a month, we noticed no improvement. Then, I realized that we had been keeping her inside, not taking her to the indoor parks that we normally frequent a few times a week, because we were trying to spend time unpacking and fixing things up around the house. Within a week after making an effort to get her some physical activity on a daily basis, my daughter's sleep patterns returned to normal and she showed hardly any signs of anxiety--a really dramatic improvement. Physical activity may not be the whole answer, but if it is lacking it can certainly exacerbate any underlying propensity to mood disorders.

My 6 year old son is an outgoing, funny kid who makes friends easily and loves to have fun but can also easily lean toward the negative. I would never describe him as depressed...just negative. If one small thing goes wrong in an otherwise great day he will decide hes had a terrible day and get really upset. Hes also easily upset if he cant do something well quickly and give up completely. He does need a ton of physical activity which he gets but this just seems to be his personality. We also talk a lot about finding solutions rather than just talking about the problem. Ive also tried to explain that focusing on the negative takes joy out of his life and I will try and balance his thinking with examples of positive things that happened in the day for example. I have a library book I spotted that sounded perfect for him but I still have to read it. Its called "Freeing your child from negative thinking" (Tamar Chansky Ph.D). If I read it soon I will repost and let you know if its any good, and if you get to it before me, please let me know if its worth the read!

I would recommend Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman. Check it out from the library and see if teaching your daughter ways to depersonalize when negative things happen helps.

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