Children and Depression
Lorraine McCune, Ph.D.
moment of infant and childhood happiness is precious. As the adults
in charge, parents or professionals, we hold the possibility of
children’s happiness, sadness, or depression in our power. A natural
state of healthy well-being comes from a sense that we are safe,
that we know our powers and their limits, and we know that a cushion
of support, parental, familial, societal, surrounds us, taking
up the slack where our own powers are limited. For very young
children, their powers are limited indeed, and the sense of an
adult at the ready, some one especially for them, is essential
to well-being. This is the simple basis of attachment theory.
In infancy one or both parents, perhaps other relatives, and in
some cases, professional caregivers fulfill this essential role.
The seeds of childhood well-being, a general sense of happiness
rather than sadness or depression is sown in the early years through
the availability of an adult to “attune” to the young child, providing
psychologically intimate understanding, as well as nourishment
and physical contact.
the early months, infants of depressed mothers have been found
to show much lower frequency of happy facial expressions, and
much more frequent sadness or anger than comparison infants whose
parents were not depressed. Adults’ own mental health is a serious
contributor to children’s emotional well-being. We may not think
that young children can be “depressed” as adults can, and the
situation is, of course very different. However, children of any
age can experience a diminution of interest, activity and learning
due to feelings of sadness and insecurity. Sometimes their depressed
state is expressed by excessive quieting, a dangerous situation
for pre-school and school age children, whose troubles may go
unnoticed because they are so “good”. At the other extreme, childhood
depression is transformed into anger and acting out. Children
who have experienced abuse are more likely than others to injure
themselves accidentally, through diminished attention to the environment,
or a lack of sufficient caring for their own well-being. They
are more likely to attribute malevolent intentions to peers in
ambiguous situations, leading to fighting and bullying. These
disruptive behaviors are always symptomatic, so that along with
disciplinary strategies, therapeutic attention need also be paid.
Parents and professionals need to monitor the emotional well-being
of the children in their care, just as they monitor physical health
and progress in learning and development. Within the family, proactive
support such as listening to your children with attention as they
report the sometimes mundane interests of their world, broadening
those interests through book reading, joint television watching,
and trips with your child to fun places, especially with the summer
months upon us, are all ways of enhancing the sense of well-being
and preventing potential mental health problems.
It is also important to assist children with the necessary challenges
of their lives. Divorce and loss through death come to mind as
circumstances extremely challenging to children. These are also
challenges which cast adults into emotional upheaval or deep sadness.
It can be difficult in these circumstances to remember the special
needs of children who may seem happy-go-lucky through it all.
Don’t be fooled by bravado. Sometimes children need to hide their
sadness even from themselves until it diminishes naturally in
intensity, or until an adult reaches out. #
Dr. Lorraine McCune is a professor at the Rutgers University Graduate
School of Education and serves as advisor to educational toy company,
General Creation. She can be reached at www.generalcreation.com
in the “Ask Dr. McCune” section.
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