On Healing 7/25/2005: Parents can reduce the risk of childhood depression

In my last column I talked about the difference between sadness and depression. And I talked about various treatments including medication and psychotherapy.

Depression is a brain disorder, and some children are more prone to it genetically. But parents can do many things to diminish the risk. And the same techniques that reduce depression risk also help raise healthier children.

Most people instinctively divide emotions into good (happiness and pride) and bad (anger, hurt, sadness or shame). As parents, we try to protect our children from the bad ones and help them experience the good ones. But in doing so, we might not be helping our children develop the resilience they will need in life.

Psychologist Karen Reivich, co-author of The Resilience Factor, suggests that building resilience is similar to the way immunizations work – give the child a small dose of the disease and let the psychological immune system do the rest.

All children sometimes come home from school feeling rejected by schoolmates, self-critical for poor performance, or angry with the teacher. Our instinct is to try to make them feel better. So some parents will try to talk children out of their bad feelings while others might go to school and complain to a teacher about a grade.

But when we do this, we convey that the children are fragile, that their perceptions are wrong, or that they are innocent victims. Not only does this harm a child’s development, this pattern will eventually close down honest dialogue.

Reivich calls this last issue the most significant risk factor for childhood depression. If children do not feel that parents will understand their emotions, they are likely to keep their feelings to themselves, and feel more alone.

Stress is another risk factor for depression. Children who live a stressful life have higher rates of many psychological disorders including depression. Children in affluent suburbs with high expectations have a much higher rate of depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse than the national average. Combine this stress with a child who might not be open with his or her parents, and the risk for depression increases substantially.

So what’s a parent to do? Reivich suggests that when a child runs into adversity, a more helpful approach would be to listen to children’s feelings and when they feel you understand them, help them use their creativity to resolve the problem: “Ask them to explore other possibilities for people’s motives, or other explanations for their poor performance. If we are patient with our children, they can develop solutions for most of their problems. And if they cannot, it is important for them to learn that whatever suffering they are experiencing in the moment will not last.”

Families can do many other things to cut down the risk of depression. Research shows that having family dinners three to four times a week reduces the risk of smoking, drinking, substance abuse and depressive symptoms. A University of Minnesota study showed that adolescent girls who had frequent family dinners were less likely to develop eating disorders. And even small children who attend the dinners tend to have a better vocabulary!

But even more important factors are in play here. Family dinners give children a sense of belonging, especially if everyone feels heard. Here more than anywhere else, children learn about parents’ values, ethics and what it means to be part of the family.

A healthy sense of self-esteem is also critical in cutting the risk of depression. Telling children repeatedly that they are special or high performers is not necessarily healthy. But self-esteem based on a child’s sense of making a positive contribution to the world will generate a healthier sense of self and can help inoculate the child against future depression.

Eat together. Listen to one another. Have faith in your children’s resilience. And together do something to help others.

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