Depression in Small Children

November 20, 2009 Updated: October 1, 2015

Even small children can be burdened by large problems. (Courtesy of Renjiun Wang)
Even small children can be burdened by large problems. (Courtesy of Renjiun Wang)
Is it possible that very small children may suffer from anxiety and depression? The sad answer is a definite Yes! It is disconcerting to hear a small voice announce, “I am going to kill myself!”

Psychiatrists tell us that—contrary to adults—small children are not capable of understanding the implications of suicide. Instead, they will use such statements (unconsciously) as cries for help, and also display threatening gestures they have learned at home.

One study from Quebec reveals problematic situations in the family environments of such troubled children. These case studies send signals of concern regarding endangered children in many homes.

Even prior to their first day of school, children in Quebec suffer from a heightened rate of anxiety and depression. According to observations, the symptoms of anxiety and depression became worse during the first five years of life. These findings are the result of a large-scale study of 2,000 young children under the auspices of the national Research Laboratory for Mental Health of Adults and Youths.

"It is unimaginable that already very young children experience problems with depression and anxiety states,” said Michel Boivin, a researcher at Michigan State University. “One assumes erroneously that this concerns only adults and youths because documented research results are much more readily available for these populations.”

Social Causes of Depression

When researching children with depression, professor Herbert Scheithauer at the Free University of Berlin concluded that the development of depression is mostly due to their social environment. Critical life events are evident in 70 percent of children with depressive illnesses.

The primary factors in depressive illnesses are the loss of a parent, a disharmonious relationship with the parents, and divorce. Children seem unable to adjust well to profound changes in their environment, such as a divorce or a new partner for either parent.

A particularly important factor in a child’s development seems to be the quality of the emotional bond between child and parent and how it affects the development of anxiety and depression. “Chronic stresses such as difficulties in relationships, lack of friendships, and affection … can precipitate depression,” said Dr. Claudia Mehler-Wex in a 2008 essay in the Deutsche Aerzteblatt (the German Medical Association’s official international science journal).

In summary, children of divorced families are more at risk of becoming emotionally unstable, which can lead to depression. Also, in families where parents often fight or suffer from stress, the health and welfare of the child should be of primary concern.

To avoid the problems of anxiety or depression, familial problems need to be resolved as quickly as possible and be taken lightly to allow sufficient time and capacity to deal lovingly and reassuringly with the child.

It has been documented that absence of a harmonious, caring family environment can leave the child with lifelong psychological scars.

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