A recent New York Times article by Pamela Paul, “Can Preschoolers Be Depressed?,” raised a number of points relevant to parenting across the span of our children’s development.
While identifying depression in preschool age children is presented as something newly emerging, Harry Harlow identified failure to thrive in monkeys, and later observed it in human babies—which looks an awful lot like depression, at least to me.
Nevertheless, some of the key issues that Paul’s article highlights have to do with our increasing understanding about the brain’s plasticity, especially at very young ages. The same open-brainness that makes early intervention with autistic kids an optimal treatment approach leads researchers to hypothesize that early intervention with depressed kids may prove equally important.
Although a negative environment can contribute to kids getting depressed, many kids of depressed, or otherwise limited, parents do not themselves get depressed (in other words, parents can mess us up, but depression is far from always their fault, at least not counting genes). Guilt rarely helps anyway but, unfortunately, there are many cases of perfectly nurturing parents providing loving environments in which even very young children sometimes become rather melancholy and lacking in exuberance.
Therapists and researchers are loath to liberally diagnose depression in little children, as it may be stigmatizing (not to mention potentially invite use of medications that could turn out to do more harm than good). Even so, whether we call it “depression” or not, doing nothing about early-onset sadness generally means that it will be worse later on, showing up as full-on depression and also as anxiety (a link which researchers are wondering about—are anxiety and depression different, related or, as I believe, often two sides of a single coin? In simple terms depression is “nothing good’s going to happen,” while anxiety is “something bad’s going to happen”—either way it’s not about presence to the here and now, which is the only place where happiness is truly possible).
The high and the low of it is that there are a significant number of melancholic little kids in our collective care—between one and three percent of kids ages 2-5, which adds up to around 84,000 sad little preschoolers.
Given that talk therapy is of little use with preschoolers, one of the key intervention strategies is about supporting parents to be more effective in dealing with sad children—particularly in learning to engage, stay lovingly connected and help kids navigate their own feelings.
For example, parents often tend to distract kids away from their negative feelings, yet accurately recognizing and reflecting our children’s pain is far more effective in helping kids who struggle to feel that they are not alone and in helping them better recognize, label and manage their own challenging feelings—feelings that could come and go if well-handled, or become more entrenched (not to mentioned neurologically reinforced, digging an ever deeper groove and then rut in a child’s mental-emotional experience) if denied, shamed or otherwise mishandled.
Of great importance is helping young kids differentiate between difficult external challenges (be it academic or tying one’s shoes) and a pervasive internal feeling of being inadequate. When children think that they are no good, rather than that they did a “bad” behavior (i.e. if they break something) their self-esteem dwindles and their shame and negative self-concepts deepen.
The notion of preschool depression is potentially fraught, particularly if pharmaceutical companies start to move into this population more aggressively. Conversely, awareness of our children’s sensitivities and struggles challenges us as parents to better attune, listen, accept, help contain emotional intensity and normalize melancholy and lack of exuberance that might otherwise lead to pervasive feelings of alienation and inadequacy. In this way parenting, even when difficult, offers ample opportunity for us to grow toward becoming our own best Selves (and the happier we are, so long as it is authentic, the more it benefits our kids, especially if they struggle with depression).
Even if early intervention is optimal, we may look back and realize that our kid has been a little blue for a long time. It’s never too late to start empathizing with, and reducing our critical judgments on, our children. At any age, telling sad people to cheer up generally just makes them further withdraw, or lash out in frustrated anger, but rarely does it change the mood in a positive direction.
Finally, the key task and challenge in these cases, be it for kids three, thirteen or twenty-three, is for us parents to hone our non-judging ability and fortify our patience and compassion so that we can pay accurate attention to our kids’ feelings. If you wish to read a bit more on how to do this see: the bowl and the sponge
Personally, I am pleased that the value of attunement with children is increasingly emerging as a key focal point for helping them. This is consistent with the core of my own philosophy and with what I have seen to be effective in my clinical work; it is also a key focus in my soon-to-be-self-published parenting book (stay tuned to this blog for details).
While attunement and empathy are hardly new concepts in being good parents (see D.W. Winnicott for one of the kindest voices in parenting, a timeless voice from decades past), accurate understanding, psychological holding of our kids’ feelings, and compassion all remain optimal ways to help kids, be it with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, oppositionality and/or an array of common parenting challenges.
And, if after dealing with your child who is sad or suffering or thinking that they are no good you need a private cry on the carpet, then let the tears flow and know that in helping metabolize the feelings of your child (even in “running them through your psyche” so to speak), you help carry your child toward a brighter day. And just to be clear, “enmeshment,” or “co-dependency” would be more about needing our children to hold our feelings for us; being happy and solid enough to empathize with our kids and yet be clear about which are their feelings and which are our own may be a high bar, but one worth striving toward.
Let’s dedicate today to having less judgment and more open seeing, hearing and feeling of whatever it is that our children are feeling today. Get your view of your kid’s feelings to match what they feel, and find a way to express this so that your child knows that you have made it to her level, no longer telling her to “just do it” or to “just get over it,” and instead switching the message to “I see that this is hard for you and I’m here with you, even when you hurt.” So, here’s to at least trying for accurate and loving understanding for all our collective children.