Originally Published: April 27, 2013 10 p.m.
When we think of depression, young kids are probably not what come to mind, but new research is showing that early childhood depression is a real thing.
"Depression has been diagnosed in children as young as 3 years old," said licensed professional counselor Laura Schulz. "Research is showing that if depression is experienced in early childhood, it is more likely to occur in adulthood. We need to get to it early."
Schulz said that one of the signs of early childhood depression is anhedonia, or the inability to enjoy everyday activities. Whether children act out or internalize, there is meaning behind their behavior. For example, they may stop enjoying playtime or seem to "go through the motions" of play without engaging. Children experiencing depression could feel excessive guilt, decreased joy, irritability, and may experience changes in eating and sleeping patterns.
Schulz also works as a supervisor with Smart Support, a program funded by First Things First in Yavapai County. Through Smart Support, a mental health consultant partners with childcare professionals to assess a situation, address concerns and find long-term solutions to challenging behaviors in young children. These behavioral concerns can range from outward expressions such as biting and hitting to less noticeable concerns such as withdrawing or restricted emotional expression.
Smart Support focuses on building a trusting, strong relationship between childcare providers and their mental health consultant. When childcare professionals feel supported by this relationship and the new skills they acquire, this both reduces their stress and works as a model for building stronger, more nurturing relationships with the children they serve. Everyone benefits - especially the children.
Smart Support also helps caregivers find opportunities to teach young children to identify and name their emotions.
Though early childhood mental health is an important concern, Schulz warns about being too quick to diagnose a child with a disorder. "Just because a child is feeling down one day doesn't mean they're depressed," said Schulz. "If you have serious concerns about your children, make sure they are brought to a developmental pediatrician or psychiatrist."
Parents or childcare providers who have a concern about their child's behavior are encouraged to call the Birth To Five Helpline, a completely free helpline where they can get their questions answered by an early childhood specialist, at 1-877-705-5437.
Parents can do things such as explain their own emotions to their children, focusing on labeling what they feel and what it means. Parents can also read books about feelings and appropriate ways to express them. It is important that parents encourage safe expression of emotion, rather than telling kids to stop crying or stop feeling a certain way.
Smart Support is a program funded by First Things First. To learn more about First Things First, visit ReadyAZKids.com.