Helping Children/Teens with Depression or Anxiety Disorders: Advice for Parents

Helping Children and Teens with Depression or Anxiety Disorders is obviously a huge topic that I can’t cover in a blog post.

However one of the things that parents can do (as a small but significant part of comprehensive treatment) is to have a behaviour management plan for home.

If your child is a stereotypical “good kid” who hasn’t needed much explicit behaviour management then you might feel unsure about the need for this or how it might affect your relationship with your child.

***If you and your child understand the underlying rationale for it, its likely to work very well.***

The idea is to “reward” behaviours that have anti-depressant/anti-anxiety effects i.e things the child can do to help themselves.

For example, you (or you and your child together depending on their age) might set 4 behavioural goals and if the child/teen accomplishes 3 out of 4 of these in the day, they get something they want.

For younger children it should be kept very, very simple. For all children/teens, it’s better to make the goals too easy to achieve than too hard.

Examples of behavioural goals include the following.

1. 15 or 30 minutes of exercise at least once a day.

2. Making a positive or optimistic statement about something during the day (i.e. if they make any positive statement about anything at any time during the day they get credit for completing this goal!).

3. Getting self out of bed by a specific time in the morning.

4. Taking appropriate self-responsibility in one area other than getting out of bed
e.g. packing their school bag the night before so they’ll be less stressed in the morning/less likely to forget something. You can set a specific target or leave this general. With teens I like to leave it general so they need to think about different ways they can take age-appropriate self responsibility.

5. Completing their Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or other therapy homework for the day

6. Showing positive interest in the well being of someone other than themselves e.g. offering to help with taking groceries out of the car rather than leaving it up to Mum/Dad. (For both adults and children, depression and anxiety tend to make people more self-focussed)

7. Asking for help, and doing so in an appropriate manner.
For example, if the child/teen is nervous about making a phone call to ask a question, they might ask their parents to role play so they have an opportunity to practice how to ask the question, rather than asking the parent to make the phone call for them.

Don’t forget to include the rewards!

Sometimes families make these plans but forget the rewards component. Don’t forget about it! Rewards can be simple like the child/teen getting to decide on a meal they want their parent to cook for dinner.
The rewards need to be something the child/teen wants. Rewards can include things that children/teens may consider “their rights” e.g. 30 minutes of playstation.

Make the behaviour management plan collaboratively, together with your child.

Set goals relevant to the mental health needs of your individual child. However, don’t be afraid to also consider the family’s needs and/or be the parent e.g. insist that for an adolescent getting themselves up in the morning goes on this list if you need this to happen.

Revise the goals and rewards as needed to keep it fresh and relevant.

Do adjust your expectations of your child given the difficulties they are experiencing.

Do keep in mind that even though using a Behaviour Management Plan might not be something your child/teen has needed previously, parental responsibility for your child’s healthy development applies to mental health as with any other aspect of healthy development

Its often harder for parents to know what the right things to do are when the health issue is a mental health issue. Parents need qualified help for knowing how to help their child. Don’t expect yourself to know what to do automatically.

In addition to being hard to know what to do to help them, parenting a child with depression or anxiety is also
exhausting. It can be difficult not to go into denial mode because of exhaustion and fear/worry for your child. If you have a sense of this happening you MUST access support for yourself.

What a Behaviour Management Does

Something that might not be obvious is that this type of plan counteracts the natural (and to a large extent necessary) tendency for children/teens to get lots of attention for “illness behaviours”. Using some form of behaviour management plan, helps balance this out, so that the child/teen is getting lots of positive attention for mental health enhancing behaviours too.

If You Have Other Children in the Family

Sometimes it works well to have the whole family do the “happiness and health plan”. The goals are often pretty applicable to everyone e.g. Making a positive or optimistic statement about something during the day.

Each person can have rewards relevant to their interests.

Or, different children can work on different goals.