Mind Matters — Depression in Children

Can pre-schoolers be depressed? Yes! Comes the answer from the clinical research of the National Institute of Mental Health. Depressing news in itself, perhaps, but not necessarily shocking.

While the researchers may contend there are genetic predispositions or biochemical factors afoot, we can also consider environmental and family influences as well. The common, yet erroneous, notion among psychiatrists and psychologists many years ago was that a preverbal child, younger than three years old, had no memory of physical or sexual abuse and therefore, it “didn’t count.” We know now how wrongheaded this idea was. An emotionally noxious environment even affects the fetus in the womb.

The recent findings of Dr Joan Luby and her colleagues arise from a study of three to six year olds. Nevertheless, this research adds to the compendium of understanding that our children, no matter their age, should be both seen and heard.

This new research has validated again the link between traumatic events (such as parental death, physical or sexual abuse) and early childhood depression. The researchers also noted that children whose mothers were depressed, or had other mood disorders, were likewise depressed. Some may be quick to say, “ah, a genetic link.” As a psychologist trained in family therapy, I would say, “not so fast with the phenotype.” Children are emotional barometers. They pick up the behavioral weather in the family and live it out unwittingly. If a parent is anxious or depressed, the child feels this.

Many years ago, I worked with a family in which the young son had an anxiety disorder. True, this boy and his sister were not preschoolers, but of middle school age. However, I would bet their emotional barometer mechanisms got set long before I met these children and their parents. I had a sense that there was more going on in this picture-perfect family than this boy’s panic attacks. Brother and sister turned out to be quite insightful and articulate. Seeing them both one day, sans parents, I came upon an interesting discovery. The children recounted that their parents put on a show of conviviality and connection for the community. It was another story at home. There, the parents led tense lives, in a virtual divorce. Their son believed his anxiety attacks would help unite the parents and save the family intactness. The sister blurted out “well, if you stop having your anxiety attacks, then I’ll have to have them back again and I had them last year.”

Not three year olds, these very perceptive children had some sense of how they carried the emotional valence of the family. A three year old can’t articulate that (and many much older adults can’t either), but the fact remains that the young child will resonate with the emotional pain of the family as much a s a tuning fork will respond to the tuning fork resounding next to it.

I would hope that in our recognition of preschool depression, we would not only attend to the affected child, but also help the family as well.