Depression doesn’t just affect adults, it also affects millions of children and adolescents.
Some of the symptoms that accompany childhood depression include irritability, social withdrawal, and low energy. Children with depression may also struggle to manage their behavior.
In 2013, 11 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds experienced a major depressive episode. Many younger children are also diagnosed with depressive disorders, such as persistent depressive disorder or disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, every year.
Children with depression may require a slightly different approach to discipline. Here are seven tips for disciplining a depressed child.
Work With Your Child’s Treatment Team
If you suspect your child has depression, speak to his pediatrician or a mental health professional. Depression is treatable, but without appropriate intervention, it may get worse. Treatment may include therapy, parent training, or medication.
Work with treatment providers to learn about the steps you can take to best support your child’s mental health. Inquire about the specific strategies you should use to address behavior problems like non-compliance and disrespect.
Establish Healthy Rules
All kids need rules, but children with depression sometimes require specific rules that support a healthy lifestyle. A depressed child may want to stay up late and sleep all day, or he may want to spend all of his time playing video games because he lacks the energy to play outside.
Set limits on electronics and discourage your child from sleeping during the day. You may also need to create rules about personal hygiene as children with depression sometimes don’t want to shower or change their clothes. Keep your household rules simple, and emphasize the importance of being healthy.
Provide Structure to Your Child’s Day
Kids with depression often struggle to fill their time with meaningful activities. For example, a child may sit in his room all day, or he may put off doing his chores as long as possible.
Create a simple schedule that provides structure to your child’s day. Set aside time for homework, chores, and other responsibilities and allow him to have limited electronics time once his work is done. Children with depression sometimes struggle with sleep issues, so it’s important to establish a healthy bedtime routine as well.
Catch Your Child Being Good
Positive discipline is most effective for children with depression. Look for opportunities to praise your child by saying things like, “You did a great job cleaning your room today,” or, “Thank you for helping me clean up after dinner.” Praise will encourage your child to keep up the good work.
Create a Reward System
Rather than focus on taking away privileges for misbehavior, emphasize to your child that he can earn rewards for good behavior. A behavior chart or a token economy system can motivate depressed kids.
Choose one or two behaviors to work on first—like taking a shower before 7 p.m. If he follows through, let him earn a token or sticker that can be exchanged for bigger rewards, like a trip to the park. Or, provide small, immediate rewards for compliance, like 15 minutes to play on the computer.
Separate Your Child’s Emotion from the Behavior
Discipline your child’s child’s behavior, not his emotions. Don’t scold him for being angry or lecture him about being in a bad mood. Instead, send the message that emotions are OK, it’s what he chooses to do with those emotions that matters. Teach him healthy coping strategies so he can deal with uncomfortable feelings, like anger, frustration, embarrassment, or sadness.
Consider the Implications of Negative Consequences
Children with depression need negative consequences for breaking the rules, but you should choose those consequences carefully. Taking away your child’s ability to socialize with friends, for example, could make his depression worse.
Short-term consequences, like time-out, can be very effective for younger children with depression. Consequences that take place over several days, like being grounded for a week, can backfire because children with depression may lose their motivation to earn their privileges back.