It’s normal for young people to feel sad and upset when they are faced with difficult times and challenging circumstances. These feelings usually pass after a short time and they get back to being themselves. It’s common for young people to have emotional ups and downs during their teenage years when they are dealing with all the physical and emotional changes that go along with adolescence. Sometimes it can be difficult as a parent or carer to know if your young person is experiencing common adolescent mood swings, or if it is something that might benefit from further support.
If a young person’s feelings of sadness persist for more than two weeks, start to affect the way they think and feel about themselves, or interfere with their ability to enjoy life, at home, at school and with their friends it could be a sign of depression. Anyone can experience depression; it can affect people of all ages, genders and race.
What is it?
Feelings of low mood and sadness can be viewed across a spectrum of mild, moderate and severe symptoms. Milder forms of depression can mean feeling in low spirits. It may not stop a young person leading their normal life, but it can make everything seem harder to do and feel less worthwhile. There are lots of things that can be done to help a young person feel better.
At its most severe however, depression can make their lives very difficult to manage. It can affect the relationships they have with family and friends. It may interfere with their school life and their social life. For some people it can be so bad that they lose the will to do anything. They may feel like there is no hope or might think about ending their life. If a young person is expressing suicidal thoughts, it’s important that the right help and support is put into place quickly. You can phone the emergency services in an emergency or phone 111 when it is less urgent. If the young person is under the care of a mental health team, you could phone them to ask for help and advice.
What signs to look out for
There are various things to look out for in your young person, such as:
- Feeling low and sad
- Feeling like they can’t be bothered to do anything
- Becoming withdrawn, avoiding friends and family
- Not enjoying things that they usually would
- Feeling moody and irritable
- Finding it difficult to concentrate
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Loss of appetite or eating too much
- Feeling guilty or bad
- Having negative, self-critical thoughts
- Can’t make decisions
- Feeling worthless
- Low self-confidence
- Not looking after themselves
- Feeling hopeless and wanting to die (this indicates severe depression and requires an immediate response)
- Suffering aches and pains
Is there a cause?
There isn’t one single factor that causes depression, but things like our personality, life experiences, and family history can all play a part. Experiencing depression is more likely if you also suffer from physical health problems or if you are under a lot of stress. Depression can be triggered by lots of different things and often it is a mixture of factors rather than just one thing but sometimes there might not be any clear reason at all.
Some possible causes could include:
- Difficulties at home
- Parents separating
- Death of a loved one
- Difficulties at school such as bullying or exam pressure
- Feeling lonely
- Relationship problems
- Abuse/traumatic events
- Lots of changes all happening at once
- Becoming physically unwell
- Issues around identity/sexuality/gender
How can I help?
Talking to your child about how they feel is an important first step. Let them know that you have noticed that they seem sad and that you are there to listen and support them. Try to avoid asking too many questions or jumping in with lots of solutions; encourage your child to talk by asking open questions and listen with empathy and care to show you are trying to understand.
If your young person doesn’t want to talk, you can let them know you are there and try again another day or encourage them to share how they feel by writing it down. Writing down how they feel can be helpful even if the writing is not shared. You could encourage them to keep a mood diary about how they feel.
If they find it difficult to talk to you, encourage them to confide in another trusted adult, such as a teacher or GP, or give them information about online support and helplines. Some websites to suggest are:
Look after their physical health
When young people feel sad or low in mood, they often stop doing things that they previously enjoyed and end up spending lots of time inactive and alone. There is a lot of evidence that tells us exercise can help them to feel better. It can help to improve self-esteem, concentration, sleep quality and provide a distraction. When we exercise our body releases endorphins, which are chemicals that can make us feel good.
Eat a balanced diet
Food can sometimes affect our mood. There is a link between what we eat and how we feel, so it’s important to have a healthy, balanced diet for both your body and mind. Try to encourage your young person to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, and to drink when they are thirsty to stay hydrated. Below are some helpful websites with information about eating a healthy, balanced diet:
A good night’s sleep is important for our body and mind. Falling asleep and staying asleep can be difficult if we are feeling low or worried about things. Staying active throughout the day and using some of the advice below can help to improve sleep, ensure your young person feels more rested and improves their mood.
Young people should have a round nine hours sleep a night. Getting into a good routine may help improve sleep duration and quality, as may reducing technology use close to bedtime.
It’s important that young people find time to relax and take some time to unwind. There are a lot of exercises they can try to help them to feel calmer and more relaxed, such as breathing exercises and guided meditation:
Other activities they could try include colouring in books, reading, going for a walk or having a relaxing bath.
Look after yourself
As parents and carers, you play a crucial part in your child’s health and wellbeing, and sometimes this might not be easy when your child is having a difficult time. In order to support your child it’s important that you make time to look after your own emotional wellbeing and find support for yourself. All of the advice above for supporting a young person can also help parents and carers to look after their own wellbeing.
Sharing your feelings and staying connected with trusted family and friends can also be helpful.
- Listen to your young person to find out what caused the low mood
- Build an activity diary together to help them have a routine
- Encourage your young person every day to do something they enjoy, this may be nice to do together
- Read up about low mood
- Don’t be scared, talk to other parents who have gone through this
- Notice all the positive steps your young person is making and tell them
- Still parent, they may push and make you feel guilty but house rules still apply
- Use the same strategies yourself, your young person will learn from you too
- Be patient, it takes time
- Reward the positive changes
For most young people, support from family and friends will be enough to help them start to feel better. However if the feelings of low mood persist, get worse or are having an impact on a young person’s daily life, then it might be useful to seek advice from a GP who can arrange for further support from a professional. Young Minds organisation offer a free Parent Information Service which provides information and advice on child mental health issues; you can phone them on 0800 0182138 or visit the Young Minds website.