Is your child depressed?

Day after news of six Kalina girls in a runaway pact came to light, psychiatrist Dr Harish Shetty explains how parents can tell if their kids are on edge

The recent episode of girls running away from their homes has shocked families and all concerned. These acts are 'warning bells' of the plight of children in the new age where cost of living and aspirations have rocketed sky high. Peer pressure and a common thread of pain running across a group of kids can be dangerous. Such acts have warning signs that are generally ignored or missed. Early identification of these signs is important. They are:

'I do not like my house'

Children who utter statements such as, 'I do not like my house', 'my house is small, my friends have bigger homes' should not be ignored. When repeated they are symptoms of a bigger malaise. Parents themselves need to respect their surroundings as they are. When the parents accept the state of affairs children are in a better state to accept their surroundings. When one parent constantly criticizes the other and blames him/her for the plight the child internalizes the same 'low self esteem' state. Remarks such as, 'you have not achieved anything in so many years in Mumbai' can instill dissatisfaction among children. Acceptance of life as it is and yet aspiring to move is a good attitude to practice.

'My friends tease me and I feel small'

When children regularly share that their friends tease them one needs to take notice. Many children join others in the same state and share their frustrations that may help. At times the frustration may mount in a group which feels cornered and perceives deprivation. Encourage the child to share such feelings in an environment of trust and complete acceptance. Also help the child to process these thoughts. Children should be allowed to reflect at these sentences and slowly they realize that those who tease and bully suffer from a deep sense of inferiority themselves. Conversations around their assets and abilities help veer them from external sources of self esteem to internal resources. Gadgets are temporary and can be acquired today or tomorrow whereas the child himself/herself is the best gadget the universe has created sinks in as respectful conversations continue. When my son wanted a gadget which I felt was of not much use we had a series of conversations across years. He continued holding on to his position but the conversations helped bonding.

'I feel guilty as my parents are working so hard'

Many children feel guilty as they cannot earn money for the family. At times parents unknowingly provoke guilt when they share their financial plight. One young girl stayed away in a park for two nights after hearing from the father that milk costs rupees 50 a liter and a single guava costs rupees 10 and how difficult it is to run the household. On the contrary parents should take the help of children to plan the family budget and expenses. When kids contribute to the decision making of the family they empathize genuinely and become part of the solution. When kids buy vegetables and do household work the bonding is immense. Children who are a part of the solution of problems in the family remain grounded and are free of guilt.

'My friend is so bold and I like his/her ideas'

It may happen that one of the kids in the group is a charismatic child and a counselor to the other. S/he may be dissatisfied and disgruntled herself/himself and may influence the others in a similar plight. So when children share glories of a friend allow the child to communicate feelings and thoughts. Improving emotional contact time inside the family and in school helps children break the conspiracy of silence and share possible running away behaviors or other undesirable behaviors. A family that shares its feelings can preempt and anticipate behavioral disasters.

'I am very depressed'

Children who run away may be suffering from depression and should be screened for the same. Those who have absconded should be treated with infinite compassion and counseling. Viewing it as shameful is dangerous and parents who blame each other may further destroy the self-esteem of the child. Children may show excessive anger, laziness, excessive sadness, sleep problems, excessive tiredness and may feel hopeless and worthless. They need to be evaluated by a mental health professional at the earliest.

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