Depression, disability and chronic conditions: what to expect
It’s normal for children to feel down, be cranky or think negatively – this is just part of growing up. Children have to go through a range of feelings to learn how to deal with them.
But childhood depression is more than just feeling sad, blue or low. Depression in children is a serious condition, which can affect children’s physical and mental health.
Children with disability or chronic conditions are more likely to experience low mood and depression than their peers because they might be in pain or feel that their condition gets in the way of daily life.
Signs and symptoms of depression in children with disability and chronic conditions
Symptoms of depression in children with disability or chronic conditions are similar to depression symptoms in other children. But the physical symptoms of disability or chronic conditions can mask some signs of depression like low energy, poor appetite and sleep problems.
And if your child with disability or a chronic condition has depression, he might also:
- say he feels different from his peers – for example, ‘I’m not good enough’
- not take medications or refuse to do other treatments like physiotherapy
- complain about pain more than usual, including headaches or whole body pain.
Helping children with disability and chronic conditions deal with depression
There are many practical things you can do to support your child with disability or a chronic condition through depression.
Many of these are the same things you’d do for any child with depression. They include modelling positive thinking, managing your child’s stress and making time for talking.
There are some extra things you can do to help your child with disability or a chronic condition.
Relationships and feelings
- Help your child think beyond her health. What is she good at? Where can she succeed?
- Look into peer networks for children with disability or chronic conditions. If these networks run camps or playgroups, this can give your child the chance to socialise with other children with similar experiences.
- Develop a plan that helps your child keep up with schoolwork and friends when he’s away for treatments.
- Support your child’s friendships and activities and help her find ways to make and maintain new relationships – for example, you could invite new friends over.
- Encourage your child to tell trusted friends about his disability or condition. This can strengthen his friendships and help him feel more supported.
- Help your child learn coping skills. You can do this by helping your child work out what soothes her – for example, she might like to be hugged, or cuddle a favourite toy.
- Give your child choices. There are some things your child will have to do, but you can be flexible with other things like foods within a diet or physiotherapy times. If your child has choices about things like this, it gives him a sense of control. But note that children with depression can struggle with making decisions, so there’s no need to make your child choose if he’s finding it difficult.
- Plan for procedures. It will probably be easier for your child to cope with stress if she knows a procedure is coming up and has a plan for coping with it.
- Try to make treatments fun. You could play music or find ways to turn them into games.
- Give your child developmentally appropriate information about his condition or disability. Give him more information as he gets older. Without accurate information, children often imagine the worst.
- Have fun as a family. Spend time together that’s not focused on your child’s disability or condition. You could try scheduling family time as well as one-on-one time with your child.
- Be consistent in the way you use family rules and consequences with all your children.
Professional help for children with depression and disability or chronic conditions
Depression doesn’t go away on its own. You need to help your child if you’re worried she has depression. Here’s what to do:
- Make an appointment to see your GP, and get a referral to a paediatrician, psychiatrist or psychologist who can diagnose depression in children.
- Make an appointment with your local area mental health service. You can find your local service by calling your nearest hospital.
- Help your child talk with a Kids Helpline counsellor by calling 1800 551 800, or using the Kids Helpline email counselling service or the Kids Helpline web counselling service.
Looking after yourself
Caring for a child with depression can be stressful. It can affect the whole family. If you look after yourself, you’ll be better able to look after your child.
You might find it helps to:
- contact a support program for parents of children with disability or chronic conditions
- talk to your GP
- make use of respite care to have a break.