Explaining Depression to Children


Depression is a spooky, scary disorder that is often difficult to understand for friends, family, and even the depressed person. We don’t know what causes it, which can lead to myriad different approaches to treatment that creates cacophony and not consensus. So if depression is this difficult for adults to understand, how do you explain depression to children?

The first thing to remember is that children are far more capable of understanding difficult or troubling information than many think. In the case of depression, honesty is always the best policy.

Know what you are talking about

Children tend to think about things in a much different way than an adult. They often can expose an adults’ ignorance about a subject with just a few unanticipated questions. So if depression is affecting someone in their family—especially a parent—it is important you are ready to answer those questions. Do your homework. If there is something you don’t know, admit it and try to find the information together. The more you learn about something, the less fearsome it becomes.

Be able to break it down to “Barney” level

If information was all you needed, you could simply plop your child down at a neuroscience lecture and that would be that. So while it is important that you know as much as you can about depression, it is equally important that you are able to place it in a context they can understand. Each child is different and “talking down” to them can be just as harmful as not talking to them about it all.

For example in explaining that a person with depression is sick, you can compare it to an illness they've had in the past like a cold. You explain how it differs, such as how you can’t “catch” depression from someone else. You can explain how it is the same, in that rest, medication, and exercise can help the depressed person “feel better.”

Finally, you can equate things so that they better understand them. You can say that depressive episodes are like a cough or a sneeze, in that the depressed person can’t control when it happens. Their understanding begins and ends with you, so make sure you not only know what you need to but also how to explain it.

Address their concerns

Even if you do everything right, kids are still going to be concerned about the depressed person in their lives. It is important that you try to allay their fears. Some are easy to predict and spot, such as ensuring that they know that none of this is their fault.

Others can be trickier, such as if children start putting too much pressure on themselves to “care for” the depressed person. “Helping out” is always okay, but if it starts to cause them undue stress be there to bear that burden for them.

Photo by Tony Alter via Flickr Creative Commons


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