Monday, August 30, 2010

Can Preschoolers Be Depressed?

A recent article in the New York Times addresses the question: can preschoolers be depressed?  The article is worth reading, but, as is often the case, the comments on the article are much more intriguing.  One comment in particular stood out to me:

"Preschoolers, contrary to conventional wisdom, have their own unique thoughts, desires, dreams, and emotions — just like adults. And each one of those thoughts, desires, dreams, and emotions is experienced...just as deeply by a child as by an adult.--Matt"

This has always been my feeling about children, both when I was one and having played and worked with them across my life.  Children feel.  Deeply. 

My friend D and I were discussing our childhoods the other day.  He asked me what I wish my parents had done better.  I thought for a moment and replied, "I wish they had taken more interest in my inner life...my thoughts, my feelings, what I thought about what was going on around me."

I bet you thought I'd say that I wished they hadn't raised me in a cult, eh?  Sure, I wish that too.  But even if that had remained the case, I think that if my parents had inquired more about how I saw things and how I was processing my life experience, they'd have known how being in the cult was affecting me, and perhaps, from there, they could have chosen whether to stay in it or not, or at least how best to help me frame the whole Jehovah's Witness experience. 

I had a very rich inner life as a child.  Still do, of course.  It's quite obviously an intrinsic part of my personality.  I remember, as a child, being quite aware of the feelings of those around me, and feeling intense emotions of my own, but no one bothered to ask what I was feeling.  I was a sponge, soaking up the angst of my depressed and anxious mother and the anger and frustration of my father.  I felt it all.   

I have always loved children.  And they have always loved me.  Why?  Because I haven't forgot what it's like to be them.  I remember acutely what it was like to be so aware and have no one who really understood that.  At a young age I would look around at the other kids and wonder, "Are they thinking about all of these things too?"  I don't know if they were, but I surmise they were.  Perhaps not with the intensity I was, but I believe they were indeed feeling more than their kid language allowed them to express.

I remember once, when I was in private practice working with kids diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, a little five-year-old guy client of mine was playing with this foam heart I had amongst my many toys in the office.  As he played with the heart, it split in two.  He looked at me, rather upset.  I reassured him that it was okay.  And he looked at me and said, "My heart feels like this."

I asked him to tell me more.  "It feels broken", he said, "My heart feels broken."  He then went on to tell me about how his parents were always at him for all the "bad stuff" he did.  But not just his parents, it was his classmates and his teachers too.  "They all think I'm bad.  I don't mean to be bad," he'd tell me.  I shared my conversation privately with his parents at the end of his session.  They realized how hard they'd been on him and how his energetic personality often lead to others treating him with harshness.  I can only hope that this realization changed how they interacted with him.

I've never forgotten this little guy.  When I closed my practice five years ago to deal with the fallout of my leaving the Jehovah's Witnesses, his parents sent me a note of thanks saying that their son always felt "safe" with me and that meant much to him and them.  The question is: how do we bring that level of "safety" to our children, the safety for our children to express their deepest feelings in whatever way they can (which is often without language, especially at younger ages)?  Time.  Children need open-ended blocks of time with their parents and their peers to experience and process that experience.  As Plato once observed, "You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

And I'm not talking organized play.  Not sports.  Not dance classes.  Not violin lessons.  Sure, these are all great activities and have their place.  No, I'm talking about open play, where kids are allowed to be kids, live in the moment and go where their imagination takes them.  If you're a parent with young children, get down, on the floor with them and their toys and play.  Forgotten how?  Then you're in more trouble than you realize.  And so are your kids.  Thankfully, kids can show you the way.  Let them show you how to interact with them.  But it takes time.  Time.  Time!

Okay, rant over.  I love kids.  It's why I don't have any.  Parenting is one of the toughest jobs around.  If you're a parent and it doesn't feel tough, you're probably doing it wrong.  And if you think your kids are too young to be feeling sad or depressed or anxious, wake up and pay attention.  And take them seriously when they show you their world or react to yours.  Kids are not mini-adults, but they are agents of awareness, no less than you.  Treat them accordingly.

Okay, now the rant is over.  For now.  Class dismissed. 

tall penguin

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