Inside: Start a conversation with your children about depression, open VITAL lines of communication, and create a safe haven.
When I woke up on Saturday morning I didn’t plan to have an in-depth discussion about depression with my seven-year-old. Does anyone?
Turns out it might be the most important conversation we ever have.
Life doesn’t always go to plan
We went to the library as usual, but there was nowhere to park. I pulled up outside and sent my son in on his own. Five minutes later he appeared dragging his bag full of books.
“Mission accomplished!” he grinned. “They told me I couldn’t come in again without you, though.”
“Children under 13 must be accompanied by an adult at all times,” he drawled in a way that sounded remarkably like the woman on the front desk.
He hauled the bag onto the seat beside him, while I launched into one of my tirades.
“Children should be allowed to go in on their own.
Children need to be allowed to go in on their own!
Children MUST be allowed to go in on their own!!!”
“Why would they have to go on their own?” my boy asked.
I reminded him of Roald Dahl’s precocious hero Matilda and her ghastly book-hating parents. We also talked about working parents and latchkey kids. Then I mentioned grown-ups who just don’t have the energy, and, without thinking, I said “depression.”
“What’s depression, Mama?”
Way out of my depth, but I couldn’t dodge the question.
We chatted about a day last week when he came home from school feeling sad. I gave him cookies and hot chocolate, read an extra chapter of our latest book, then asked if he wanted to talk. He didn’t have the words. We lay side by side on his bed while he cried until he felt better.
“We all feel down sometimes, and then we cheer up, just like you did,” I said.
I waded in deeper
“BUT if you have depression you don’t feel better after your favourite snack, or a chat, or even a good cry, and sometimes you go on feeling sad for weeks, and everything is tiring and worrying and pointless, which makes it too difficult to do anything.”
He nodded, but I could tell from the blank look on his face it wasn’t sinking in. I needed to stop telling, and start showing.
“It’s like trying to swim the Atlantic with your clothes on,” I floundered.
We were getting nowhere.
Flailing about but can’t give up
A handful of devastating facts:
- Children as young as 5 suffer from depression
- More than 2% of young children suffer from depression
- More than 10% of teens suffer from depression
- Although rare in the under 12s, depression can lead to suicide
- Suicide is one of the leading causes of death amongst children aged 12 and over
Open lines of communication are vital because they increase the likelihood of early detection, diagnosis, and treatment. Easier said than done, though.
Start the conversation
My subconscious threw me a lifeline. I remembered a sublime picture book about the darkest of days – Virginia Wolf (loosely based on writer Virginia Woolf and her artist sister, Vanessa Bell).
We cuddled up on the sofa and read it together.
Virginia is ‘feeling wolfish.’
In four short lines, author Kyo Macklear shows the effect of her mood.
The whole house sank.
Up became down.
Bright became dim.
Glad became gloom.
Maclear and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault cover common symptoms of depression: irritability, fatigue, and social withdrawal:
My son’s knitted brows revealed his concern.
After a while, Virginia suggests that flying might make her feel better.
“If you were flying, where would you like to go?”
Virginia describes ‘Bloomsberry’ – “a place with frosted cakes and beautiful flowers and excellent trees to climb and absolutely no doldrums.”
While Virginia naps, her sister creates Bloomsberry. Virginia wakes and is moved to join in.
The whole house lifted.
Down became up.
Dim became bright.
Gloom became glad.
My son and I pored over the pictures and talked about how both sisters might feel, including Virginia’s overwhelming sadness. But mostly we focused on HOPE.
You could see the light dancing in his eyes as he admired their colourful imaginary world.
“She doesn’t have depression, does she?” he asked, hopefully. “Because it only lasted a day.” Exactly.
If you were flying, where would you like to go?
If we learn something from a book we like to run with it, to make sure it sticks.
Arsenault’s illustrations inspired us to create a JOYFUL mixed-media paradise of our own.
It makes us smile. Every. Single. Time.
Imagining and creating a happy place are both techniques used in the treatment of depression. So we might be onto something.
Why don’t you get out your art box and design a safe haven with your family?
Plan to have that conversation
I’m glad I didn’t dodge my son’s question. He now has the words to describe his feelings on sad days. And we’ve started an ongoing conversation about mental health, which will hopefully protect us all from unimaginable heartbreak in the future.
Reading Virginia Wolf is a safe way to start talking about depression with our little ones. It also provides comfort for those of us prone to wolfishness ourselves. I hope you find it as useful and uplifting as we did.
I write about parenting problems and the picture books we used to solve them.
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Let’s raise HAPPY literate humans!
Global network of child helplines
A list of signs and symptoms of depression in children.
Can YOU recommend books for those dim and gloomy days? Please list them in the comments section below.
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