Sadness and tearfulness in children

 
Contributed by : Ali Momin   
Sadness and tearfulness in children

The truth is - it is common for children to experience times of sadness. This articles include some practical ideas which parents can use to help their child cope with sad times.

The truth is - it is common for children to experience times of sadness. Although only about 2-3% of children will experience the type and extent of sadness that requires psychologists to diagnose.


Which children experience frequent and persistent sad moods – and when?

Children are more likely to experience sad moods when they have to deal with tough life circumstances. For example, children who are managing family separation, grief, physical illness, learning problems, family poverty, family ill health or other tough life situations are more likely to experience frequent sadness.


What should parents of sad children do?


1. Remind yourself that your sad child is not feeling sad all the time (even if they feel they are).

It’s normal for children (and adults) in the midst of sad moods to genuinely feel like they are sad all the time. They will often say to you, “I’m always sad”, they will express excessively negative opinions about their day, the event they just went to, their school day and their friends and classmates. Their self report may suggest to you that there is nothing positive happening for your child and that they feel bad all the time. 

However, this self report is not 100% true but simply a function of how the human brain works. When we are in negative moods, our brains are designed to focus on the problems. Children (and adults) will subconsciously “block out” positive memories, interactions, people and events when they are feeling bad. But this doesn’t mean they are not there.

It is important for parents – and their children - to know that sadness is not constant. Even children who are frequently sad, have many moments each day of being absorbed in a task, enjoying an activity for a moment or to have some periods of time when they are looking forward to something. It’s important for us as parents, and our child, to remember this, and to help them identify these “shades of grey” in their mood. 


2. Over time, your child will gradually feel less sad, less often.

Persistent and long lasting depression in childhood is extremely rare. The chances are excellent that your child will feel less sad, less often at some point in the near future. Having worked with hundreds of children, I know that almost all children will have reductions in sadness over time. 

Be assured: it is very likely that life will change for the better for your child at some point. They will adjust to difficult life events, grief will resolve, they will have a change in peer group, they will find an activity or part of life which feels meaningful and interesting for them, or life will change for them in some other way. 

Even if the sources of sadness do not change significantly, they are likely to learn to think about life and cope with life in ways which make sadness less frequent. 


3. As parents you can help your sad child.

Parents often feel helpless when their attempts to help their sad child don’t seem to help. They feel like there is nothing they can do. This is not true. 


As parents we can coach and support our child to help themselves to feel less sad and to cope with tough life events. No, there is no quick and easy fix, but we can make a difference slowly as time passes.


Some practical ideas which parents can use to help their child cope with sad times.

1.   Be empathic. Be “with them”. Say “I’m sorry you had a hard day” and “I’m sorry you are feeling sad at the moment”. 

2.   Try to be patient with your child. Remember your child can’t “make themselves” be positive or happy. 

3.   Ask about specific “sad time triggers”. Although children will sometimes be sad “for no reason”, it is more often that there are at least some situations, thoughts or events which do trigger or cause sadness. Try to help children identify at least some of these – and then think about how these can be managed differently (or avoided). 

4.   Although we need to be on the lookout for and ask about triggers, it’s also important to NOT talk endlessly about the sadness or the problems. Having hour long conversations (especially before bed) may make things worse. Tell your child “we will talk about this again soon, but now let’s read a book/watch TV” etc.

5.   Try to also limit your frustration with others – don’t blame other people for your child’s sadness. Teachers, doctors, parents and other children aren’t the (sole) source of the problem and they can’t “fix” your child either.

6.   Gently teach children to notice the ups and downs of their mood – pick your moment but empathically challenge comments like “I’m always sad” – feeling this way is part of sadness, but is not 100% true. Ask them to notice when they felt good or interested or absorbed in something and sadness wasn’t their focus.

7.   Teach children to notice the positive aspects of their day and positive events in the future. Put in “gratitude” exercises around the tea table occasionally and “my interesting week” exercises. Make some of these “past” focused, and others focused on the future.

8.   Constantly work on social connection – it is very difficult to reduce sadness in children if they are isolated and have no positive source of friendship. Even if there are other obvious sadness triggers (ie grief, family separation, learning problems, health problems) – increasing social connection will help children feel less sad as they deal with them.

9.   Keep working on helping your child finding sources of self esteem and meaning. Children (like adults) need to feel they are good at something, or that there is something interesting and important for them to do. 

10.  Work on physical activity, sleep and nutrition. Sadness eases when children are more physically fit and active, get enough sleep and eat well. Don’t neglect these areas.

11.  Teach children ways to cope with periods of sadness. Help them make a list of “busy brain” activities so that when they are sad they do not withdraw or ruminate for long. Help them use words to tell people about their sadness rather than get angry or cry. Help them identify a problem which triggers their sadness and see if they can come up with potential steps to manage it.


Finally, look after yourself. As said several times in this article, supporting children who get sad is a challenging and stressful experience for parents. If you are to manage any challenging and stressful experience, you need to look after your own physical, mental and emotional health. Take care of yourself, talk to others, get professional support, take breaks from parenting or do whatever else works for you in looking after yourself.




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