In 2018, 1 in seven teens (aged 12 to 17) experienced major depression in the previous year, an increase of 73% over 10 years.1 In more than two thirds of cases, depression had a major, visible impact on children’s lives, causing severe problems with their ability to do chores at home, do well at school, get along with their family, or have a social life.
Depression can happen to any child, and it’s important to know how to spot the signs and treat this debilitating disease. At the same time, assuming your child is not yet suffering from depression, there are three powerful steps you can take to help your child avoid depression in the first place.
Help your child develop strong relationships
Study after study shows that the single greatest determinant of people’s overall well-being is the quality of their relationships. Relationships come in various flavors, including family ties, friendship, and romance. People who say they feel close to others report higher life satisfaction and live longer, more fulfilling lives than those who don’t. Strong relationships are reciprocal; people who are good at relationships need to be willing and able to accept as well as give love.
Of course, you already pay attention to your relationship with your child. You can also help your child develop strong relationships with others by talking about friendship and how it develops, spending time around other children and adults that your child enjoys, cultivating a culture of social play in your neighborhood, reading books about friendship, and, whenever possible, accommodating your child’s desire to spend time with friends.
Help your child become deeply engaged in activities
The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes true engagement as a state of deep, effortless involvement, what he calls “flow.” To achieve “flow,” people need to use all their capabilities such that they get completely consumed by an activity. This kind of engagement can be found in different places for different people: on the basketball court, in games like chess, in the carpenter’s shop, or in the classroom. Some people engage more in solo activities, while others engage more in groups. You don’t have to be good at something to be deeply engaged in it, but deep engagement is more likely when people are stretched, but not overwhelmed, with challenge.
To help your child discover the joy of true engagement, look for signs that they are being drawn into a particular activity. When you see those signs, do whatever you can to foster deeper engagement. Does your young child love a particular board game? Play it more often? Are they fascinated by garbage trucks? Go up to the guy on the truck and see if you can get a quick tour. Do they love a particular sport or creative activity? Support your child’s passions, whatever they are.
Help your child discover purpose and meaning
A sense of purpose, or meaning, arises from belonging to or serving something bigger than oneself. Many people get meaning from groups they belong to: their families, bowling leagues, neighborhoods, book clubs, religious communities, or political parties. Meaning often comes from serving others, for example by picking up trash or visiting an elderly aunt. Still others find meaning in their creative work or leadership. Wherever meaning if found, it answers the “why” question…why am I doing this?
To help your child discover purpose and meaning, share what is meaningful to you with your child. Talk to them about what matters to you, and why. Then, look for signs that they are finding meaning in particular places, such as their relationships with particular people, association with particular groups, or involvement with particular activity or causes. Every child is different; the trick to helping your child discover meaning is to respond to the clues they give you, and to help them take steps to deepen their connection to meaningful people, places, and activities.
To help your child avoid depression, cultivate relationships, engagement, and meaning. You can’t guarantee that your child won’t become depressed, but you can reduce the odds by a lot.
- Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration