When parents took their 6-year-old son to the Center for Children and Families (CCF) at the Erikson Institute, they wanted to find out why he was irritable and angry — and what was causing his tantrums at home and at school.
The child mental health professionals at CCF gathered information from caregivers and teachers and observed the child at the clinic and in his school setting. What they discovered is that the boy was experiencing depression — and that his actions were symptoms.
It’s a myth that children under the age of 9 can’t experience depression, as infants and children can have this mental health diagnosis. However, depression appears differently in this age group than it does in older children, teens and adults, according to CCF’s Director Sara Anderson-Phou, a licensed clinical social worker.
In this situation, the child’s parents struggled to process their child’s depression diagnosis. That’s not uncommon, Anderson-Phou says.
“The child’s parents were concerned about his behavior and development and were wondering if it was something more. Depression wasn’t on their radar,” she explains. “Most parents feel disbelief and some self-blame. And, they often feel hopeless and not sure what to do about it.”
Fortunately, a diagnosis opens the door for parents and caregivers to learn more about how depression manifests in young children. And it gives families an opportunity to explore treatment.
Understand, acknowledge and treat
As important as it is to provide treatment for the child experiencing depression, it’s also important to support the parents and caregivers in understanding the diagnosis, Anderson-Phou says.
“We also help parents think about how to support their child to feel better. We work collaboratively to create some treatment goals and move forward,” she explains.
Sometimes it helps to frame depression as a health condition, much like an asthma diagnosis. Both are conditions that affect the child and the family, so child mental health experts at CCF help parents address and manage their child’s depression, rather than hide or blame themselves. Just as there are treatments for childhood asthma, there are also treatments for a child’s depression.
Play therapy is often the treatment families can expect at CCF. During this focused playtime, parents and caregivers are fully supported and learn how to validate and name their child’s feelings. They learn how to sit with their child’s feelings and let them know it’s OK to feel strong emotions.
“This is a big process for most caregivers. This is new information and not the way most were raised. We support caregivers to do this for their child and learn to do it for themselves, too,” Anderson says.
5 key questions to ask
When children share strong emotions in the form of anger or a tantrum, parents often just want the behavior to stop. But when they can learn to validate their child’s feelings and name their emotions, their child begins to trust that their caregivers can help them process these feelings.
“Children are predisposed to rely on a trusted relationship with their caregivers. When a baby is born, they can’t exist without someone to care for them and that’s a biological need we all have,” Anderson-Phou explains, adding that therapy can help build or restore this relationship.
As parents go through the process of therapy with their child, they may wish to consider these five reflective questions:
- What do I think my child is feeling right now?
- What is happening with my child right now, and what happened just before?
- How am I feeling?
- What do I need to support my child?
- What do I think my child needs right now?
During challenging times, it can be helpful for a parent or caregiver to pause and think about the behavior that is showing up, consider what is happening and try to figure out what the behavior is really about, Anderson-Phou says.
“In the moment, it’s not always clear,” she says. “Maybe they knocked a cup off the table, but you’re not sure why. We want to help the parent not just respond to the behavior but also to the underlying feeling.”
At CCF, child mental health experts offer unique parent-child support for depression and anxiety, to help heal child or family trauma and support healthy parent-child relationships.
“We hold the parent-child relationship at the heart of treatment,” Anderson-Phou says.
The Center for Children and Families at Erikson Institute has locations in Chicago’s River North and Little Village neighborhoods, as well as Oak Park and offers services in English and Spanish. Learn more at erikson.edu.
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