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Depression-Proof Your Young Child
It may come as a surprise to you that children as young as six, seven and eight can be depressed. Like me, you may know many adults who are depressed. In fact we tend to view depression as an illness that people with responsibilities, i.e., adults, face. One in four adults have a depressive episode at some point in their life. With that in mind I don’t think anyone is surprised by the high rates of depression in young adults and adolescents, too. Most of us recognise that modern adolescents survive in a rather unforgiving environment with numerous pressures and responsibilities we were less likely to face 25 years ago.
Pressures exist from their lives being sexualised at every turn, to bullying and aggressive behaviour, drug and alcohol abuse rife in many schools. They’re examined scholastically nearly every year, many come from broken homes or witness their parents facing, e.g., mental health problems. There's a constant stream of new gadgets and fashions forced down their throats as ‘must-haves’. Even having to watch out for "suspicious packages" on public transport form part of the stressful wallpaper of their lives in bigger cities.
However the recent news about depression in young children has come as a shock to many. What’s staggering is that at any given moment there's 80,000 cases of young children suffering from serious depression and many more suffering a depressive episode of note. But if adolescent and adult depression reflects the stresses and strains of life and responsibilities in relation to a person's individual personality and coping mechanisms. As well as for some people a biochemical predisposition to depression, what does early childhood depression reflect? On the whole it reflects a child’s home-life that parents are responsible for as well as their immediate social environment.
The fact that the European Medicines Agency has said that Prozac may be given to children as young as eight should serve as a wake-up call. The majority of child mental health experts are rightly against the use of an anti-depressant like Prozac in young children except in the most extreme cases. Instead recommending talking therapy that involves the parents in one form or another. In this light it makes sense to look at preventive measures so young children don't develop depression in the first place.
There are a number of critical things a parent can do to help depression-proof their child. Granted there are many issues your child may face as a young adult that are beyond your control leading them to become depressed. But if you can take steps now to prevent any depressive episode while they're very young this is definitely worth your efforts.
When conducting research into emotional and behavioural problems of young children at a London teaching hospital the team I was part of carefully scrutinised the factors having a positive influence on young children's mental health. Not only do these factors have a role to play in preventing such problems but also in helping a child improve when they've experienced emotional problems like depression.
I'd like to break down complex research into usable nuggets for you as a parent to integrate into your way of life and parenting style. One of the most important factors we examined in relation to child mental health was maternal self-esteem. In a nutshell, if a mother feels good about herself this had a profound and positive impact on the emotional state of her child. The very first thing I'd like you to do as a parent is to ensure your own levels of self-esteem are as high as they can be. Be kinder to yourself and talk-up your good points each day. Ask for help if you need it. Eat better and look after yourself generally. Take up that hobby or sport you've been putting off. It's a simple formula: a happier parent does equal a happier child.
Next it's important that you lead by your example. If you let rip over the smallest thing or are a drama-queen in the face of problems, your young child learns that life is so tough that it requires a dramatic response. They take on board the message that mummy/daddy don't have the skills and resilience to overcome problems, so what chance have they got? This makes the world a big, frightening place they’re likely to withdraw from - a classic sign of childhood depression. By regulating your emotional responses you give them a good role model for handling their own emotions.
Part of handling emotions in a positive way includes your child learning to express them self. Not only can you help them do this by asking what they feel and think about a whole variety of things, you can encourage your child to express them self through any creative form, sport or interest they have. However don’t become a classic "stage mother or father" that lives your own failed dreams through your child's life. Children that feel valued for themselves, as the unique individuals they are, are much less likely to become depressed. In my book Understanding Your Child's Dreams I use your child's dreams and nightmares as a springboard for what I call Creative Parenting, the essence of this is helping your child to communicate about every aspect of their life.
My next depression-proof suggestion is that you employ what I call "flexible-firmness" when it comes to setting boundaries. Young children need boundaries to feel secure. That said, if you're authoritarian and resolutely firm about, e.g., their schedule and how things are "done", that can also be debilitating to their well-being. Yes, it's good for you to establish a routine that works for your family but you shouldn't panic if for some reason that routine gets out of kilter. Equally it's important to expect good behaviour from your children but not to come down on them like a ton of bricks for minor transgressions. Consistency is crucial to this. Also confidence in your own decisions when it comes to schedules, routines and boundaries. The parent who is the antithesis of an authoritarian parent and who continually changes the goal posts does not establish a sense of security either. Flexible-firmness is the half-way point to aim for.
Probably the most important suggestion may also appear to be the most obvious and that is to let your child know you love them. Many parents tell me, "Oh, my child knows how much I love them." I beg to differ, as children need bags of reassurance particularly when parents are so busy nowadays. Tell them you love them and in many different ways. That includes both verbally and giving them lots of cuddles and affection. It's tempting, e.g., for parents to withdraw love when children behave badly. However once you've talked through an issue that’s annoyed you, give them a big hug and reassurance that your love is unconditional.
Finally start taking a day-by-day approach to life generally and with your child specifically. It's easy as parents to feel overwhelmed by every day stresses and strains. The negative side to this is that you start to see the future as very bleak and take a "cup half-empty" view of life. Your young child will pick up on this very quickly. Tackle issues as they arise so pressures don't mount. Also learn to let go of the things that simply don't matter.
Ultimately if you’re the parent of a young child and can use some of this advice to help depression-proof their life that's a very positive step in the right direction. If you suspect your child is depressed then seek help immediately from your GP. It's no good getting a wake-up call and feeling helpless in the face of it. A sense of helplessness is part of depression so show your child that small steps can be managed and make a difference. And that’s another way of depression-proofing them!
Published in The Express Newspaper
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