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Depression in Young Children

Although it is often difficult for parents of children under the age of five to accept, doctors now know it is possible for very young children to suffer from depression. Oftentimes, children who are depressed are thought to be shy, distant, lazy, stubborn, or defiant. Every child has a bad day and is sad or tearful. Depression is far more than a bad day. It is a prolonged sadness from which a child cannot be coaxed out.

Risk factors for childhood depression:

  • Children are 50% more likely to suffer from depression if they have a parent who suffers from depression.
  • Children who experience early childhood trauma such as abuse, neglect, loss of a parent, war/violence, and catastrophic natural disasters.
  • Excess punishment and criticism with too little reward or praise.
  • Failure to establish solid emotional bonds in infancy because of rejection or neglect.
  • Chronic illnesses.
  • Children who have attention deficit or conduct disorders.

Signs of depression:

  • From birth to age two: Feeding problems, failure to thrive that has no physical cause, not easily soothed, rejects being touched or held, lack of playfulness, little or no desire to explore and interact with the environment, and an overall absence of joy.
  • Age 3-5: Explosive tantrums, lack of interest in or failure to enjoy activities, low energy, pervasive sadness and crying, social separation, loneliness, anger and hostility, exaggerated fears or phobias, accident prone, regression in important developmental milestones such as toilet training, and apologizes for excessively minor mistakes.
  • Age 6-8: Low self-esteem, poor concentration, disturbed sleep patterns, fatigue, guilt and extreme sensitivity to failure, inability to cope with change, feelings of hopelessness, lack of appetite, aggression, poor school performance, social isolation, vague physical complaints such as stomach pain and headaches, clinging to parents, and avoidance of new people and challenges.

What to do:

  • Trust your instincts. As the parent, you know your child better than anyone else. If you’re concerned about the behaviors your child exhibits, talk with your pediatrician. If a physical exam reveals no cause for the behavior, ask for a referral to a child psychologist or behavioral specialist.
  • Try to be patient. Treatment takes time and there may be many adjustments along the way. Don’t give up. If one method doesn’t work, search for another. Your child’s mental health is too important to disregard.
  • Participate fully in the treatment plan. Parental training is the best route for very young children who are not candidates for medicinal intervention or talk therapy. A specialist will train you to help your child learn stress management techniques, coping skills, regulation of emotions, relaxation methods, and reduction of overt feelings of guilt.
  • Maintain structure: Routines create predictability and emotional security—exactly what your child needs.
  • Get help for yourself. Check in with yourself to see if you too show signs of depression. If necessary, seek out professional help. Oftentimes the best way to help your child is too get help yourself. If you have questions or would like additional information, call PAL, 1-866-962-3030.

There are numerous ways children can experience physical abuse- shaking, jerking, slapping, pinching, pulling hair, and harsh spankings or beatings. Most often parents revert to these tactics because of extreme frustration, stress, and/or lack of appropriate parenting skills.

  • Shaking – All infants cry, some much more than others. Parents who feel frustrated and helpless to stop the crying may shake the baby. This can result in brain damage or death. When violent shaking occurs the brain “bounces” around within the head causing it to bleed. It is also possible to break the infant’s neck. In a single moment of anger a parent can unintentionally kill their own child.
  • Jerking, pinching, hair pulling – When there is tension and emotional turmoil in the home children may not understand everything going on. However, they do feel the stress and react in the only way they know how- with unruly behavior and tantrums. Although these behaviors are extremely frustrating it is never acceptable to jerk a child’s arm. It could pull the arm out of the socket causing tremendous pain. Pulling of hair or pinching is not only hurtful, but humiliating as well.
  • Spankings and beatings – Harsh spankings or beatings are extremely dangerous to a child’s health especially if a paddle or belt is used. This could result in damage to the kidneys, spleen, liver and other major organs. Furthermore, spankings only stop unwanted behavior temporarily. Hurting a child does not teach him to solve a problem. It just makes him feel bad about himself, angry and resentful towards his parents, and increases his own aggressiveness.


What to do instead:

  • Educate yourself about the development of your child and take classes about appropriate parenting strategies.
  • Seek out a professional who deals with anger management, stress, and abuse issues. Oftentimes, parents who experienced abuse as a child instinctualiy react to their children in the same manner as their parents treated them. Sometimes parents do not even realize their behaviors are harmful.
  • Learn to recognize your limits and get in touch with your body’s signals such as fist clenching, teeth grinding, and elevated heart rate. When you feel yourself getting extremely frustrated take a‘time out’. Make sure your child is in a safe place, go to another room, breathe deeply as you count to yourself and return when you feel you have regained control.
  • Ask for help. Call a friend or family member to talk or ask them stay with your child while you get away for an hour or so.
  • Look for the good in your child. Use praise whenever you notice your child behaving as you wish.This let’s him know how to act and your expectations.
  • Call Alabama’s Parenting Assistance Line (I-866-962-3030). A Parent Resource Specialist will be available to talk, offer support, and help you find useful resources.
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