Trigger Warning: Brief discussion of suicidal ideation.
Preschool depression is often overlooked, because the symptoms are difficult to spot or may be explained away by hopeful parents and teachers. Depression in adults is widely known, but can preschoolers suffer clinical depression? Science says they can.
Scientists began studying depression in preschoolers 20 years ago, and the research continues today. According to the conclusion of a new study led by Dr. Joan Luby of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, preschoolers suffer depression. Luby’s team examined 306 children ranging from 3 to 6 years old. This study demonstrated that 23% of the 3-year-olds endured depressive symptoms every day for two consecutive weeks. As the age of the child increased, the rate of major depressive disorder diagnoses also increased. The 4-year-olds suffered depressive symptoms at a rate of 36%, while the 5-year-olds showed a rate of 41%. The children who had suffered extremely stressful or traumatic events in their lives also had a higher incidence of depression than the controls.
Preschoolers generally can’t describe their emotional states. They’re still learning what emotions are and they lack the ability to vocalize them. This is the difficulty in diagnosing depression in preschoolers, and why you may need help spotting it. In order to allow the study participants to express how they perceive themselves and get a sense of what young children were feeling, Dr. Luby’s team asked a series of questions using puppets. How the children responded gave the researchers a clue about how the kids were feeling.
Further complicating the picture is the prevalence of other conditions along with depression, like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In Dr. Luby’s study, about 40% of the study participants also dealt with ADHD, which tends to drown out symptoms of depression, because the symptoms are similar. This can even persist later in life. Children who suffer depression are more than four times as likely to suffer an anxiety disorder later in life than kids who don’t suffer depressive symptoms.
But what does depression look like in a 3-to-6-year-old?How can you, as a parent, spot it? Well, depression in children looks a lot like depression in adults. For example, anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure from normally enjoyable activities, can show up in adults as a lack of enjoyment in things like golfing or writing. Preschoolers with anhedonia find little to no joy in their toys. Both adults and children with depression are restless and irritable. Depressed kids whine a lot, and don’t want to play.
When they do play, children may decide that their stuffed animals decided to “die” today and decide to bury them. Anytime you see a preschooler demonstrate methods of suicide or death with a stuffed animal without mimicking an episode of your life, such as a death in the family, your antennae need to come up. That could indicate suicidal thoughts.
But the most common symptom of depression in children is deep sadness. Not someone who’s sad for a day, but all the time, no matter who he or see is with or what he or she is doing. Sadness in the face of goals that have been thwarted is normal. But depressed children have difficulties resolving the sadness to the point where the misery affects their ability to function regularly. If your child appears to be sad to the point of inability to enjoy anything or regulate their other emotions, then get a recommendation from your pediatrician for a child psychologist or a behavioral therapist.
Other notable symptoms of childhood depression are an exaggerated sense of guilt, shame, and insecurity. Depressed preschoolers generally feel that if they do a naughty thing or disobey, that means they are inherently bad people.
Here’s a breakdown of the symptoms of depression in children of any age, including preschoolers:
- Deep and persistent sadness
- Irritability or anger
- Difficulty sleeping or focusing
- Refusing to go to school and getting into trouble
- Change in eating habits
- Crying spells
- Withdrawing from friends and toys
- Anhedonia – inability to derive pleasure from enjoyable activities, like playing with toys
- Low self-esteem and insecurity
- Shame and guilt
Preschoolers may be especially vulnerable to depression’s consequences. Young children are sensitive to emotions, but lack the ability to process strong feelings. Early negative experiences–including separation from a caregiver, abuse, and neglect–affect physical health, not just mental. Multiple studies have linked childhood depression to later depression in adulthood.
This is why properly diagnosing and treating these children early is so vital. One established intervention for treating childhood depression is called Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, or PCIT. Originally developed in the 1970s to treat violent or aggressive behaviors in preschoolers, PCIT is a program where, under the supervision of a trained therapist, caregivers are taught to encourage their children to manage their emotions and stress. The program typically lasts from 10 to 16 weeks.
The Bottom Line
Dr. Luby’s research is met with resistance. Laypeople typically think the idea of preschoolers suffering depression ridiculous, and even some doctors and scientists don’t believe children are cognitively advanced enough to suffer from depression. Preschool depression remains a controversial topic, which makes it harder to diagnose in your child.
But depression in children 6 years and older has been well established by decades of data. Is it really so hard to think that preschoolers might suffer depression as well? Dr. Luby and her team have been looking at the data for 20 years, and have concluded that preschoolers can suffer depression, just like older children and adults.
Admitting that your child is depressed may make you feel like you’re a failure. After all, if you can’t protect your children from depression, who can? But clinical depression is chemical. This is not your fault. You may have been told that depression doesn’t exist in preschoolers, or that you’re overreacting. You may be called a helicopter or hovering parent. But trust your instincts. You know your child better than anyone else. Don’t be afraid to go against stigma for your child’s benefit.
Up to 84,000 of America’s 6 million preschoolers may be clinically depressed. If your child is one of them, you are not alone. There is no shame to depression. The condition is not your child’s fault, just as in adults. No parent likes to see her child suffer, and getting help for depressed children is vital to their well-being.
If your child suffers depressive symptoms, especially anhedonia, ask your pediatrician for a recommendation for a behavioral therapist or child psychologist. Typically, the earlier the intervention, the more successful the results.
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