It is true that we don't know much at all about child depression. However, we do know that social relationships can help, just like they do with adults. New studies are coming in each day that suggest this is one big factor that helps buffer kids against depression, or helps decrease depression once it shows up. One recent study suggests that the more involved second and third grade teachers are in their student's lives the less depressed they become (Split 2018).
As a parent, how can I use this information about social support to help my child with depression?
First, think about how depression impacts us as adults. It is an isolating disease. In fact some claim it is a disease that RESULTS from isolation. Watch this video, that captures the importance of social isolation in depression.
Finding others in the community whom your child can be connected with can be challenging because our society no longer prioritizes the community. Most kids are not going out to play with neighbors but are sitting in front of computer gaming, instagramming, texting, on youtube, TikTok or watching tv. There are probably new ones I don't even know about. While these activities can be valuable and have their place, they are not a substitute for real face to face interactions. Although most of the research is not in, many people speculate that the rise in depression and anxiety, especially among our teens, is due to technology.
When our lives become busy it can be hard to think of ways to stay more connected to the people around you, but the pay off can be large for your child. The more you get to know your neighbors the easier it will be for your child to have social support and connection in the community. Invite your neighbors over for dinner. Have a potluck. Introduce yourself to them. Make new friends. Model prosocial behavior for your child so they can begin to build a support network.
Limit Your Child's Technology
Social networking is not the only way to connect, and the more we learn about it the more we understand it is part of what feeds depression our children and teens. The more kids are connecting in the real world, the healthier they are. Committing a family to disconnect occasionally and reconnect to face to face communication can give your kids a better shot at living a depression free life. Some parents have trouble with this recommendation, and that's okay. Do this best you can when you can. A small step in the right direction is a step in the right direction. Some kids can find social support through communities online that ease depression, but it's equally likely that technology is fueling some of their depression.
Get to Know your Child's Teachers and Classmates
The value of these close personal relationships and how they may serve as a protective factor cannot be overstated. The best way to get to know the teacher and classmates is to use old fashioned ways rather than technology. Learn your child's teachers faces and voices rather than using email. If you can, show up at the school and call the teachers. Once the teacher knows you, they will know your child, and it will be easier to develop personal relationships with them. If your child is already suffering from depression, a direct conversation with the teacher about your child's struggle is the best approach to take. This can save your child loads of unnecessary stress.
Going out of your way as a parent to find friends for you child is sometimes necessary. Kids may not know how to make plans on their own, and because many of our schools are not in the actual neighborhoods where kids live, parents may have to go to great lengths to help facilitate plans for kids. You probably know that though. It is exhausting and can be a lot of extra work for you as a parent, but the payoff of the social support for your child is priceless.
Give your Child a Spiritual Life
Giving your child a sense of meaning and direction is a great gift. Belief in a higher power, a purpose in one's life, or the power of prayer may protect a person from depression. This does not necessarily mean organized religion, but some belief that helps than make sense of the world. This will also often lead to more organized activities that will connect your child with more adult support or peer interaction, always a protective factor for depression.
Involve your Child in Some Form of Sport
Studies show young children who exercise are less likely to get depressed, and team sports help them develop social skills, problem solving skills, and self esteem. Encouraging your child to play a team sport can do wonders for most of these areas, all of which are impacted negatively by depression. Additionally, it will help to give kids a sense of belonging, and an opportunity to make new friends, and many new sources of social support. Girls who participate in sports have higher self esteem, better body image, less illness and lower rates of teen pregnancy in adolescence. If this recommendation is too overwhelming, try a small walk as a family or with a friend who has a child too.
Spilt et al (2018). Teacher involvement prevents increases in Children’s depressive symptoms: Bidirectional associations in elementary school. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, , 1-9. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10802-018-0441-7