Being a preschooler seems like a great time in life. With growing independence, mastery of new skills, first real friendships and not a care in the world how could any preschooler be depressed? Still, depression does affect preschoolers – and more often than you would think.
Preschoolers are just learning how to manage their emotions and let’s face it, sometimes grownups have a hard time with that! Preschoolers have to learn how to get mad and not hit, get frustrated and not have a temper tantrum, get happy without making too much noise in church and negotiate the world of sharing and friendships when the rules are still murky for them. This is a lot of work!
The good news is that kids love “work” in general and this is true of the work of managing emotions. Think about a preschooler who will get dressed and undressed over and over, zipping and buttoning and putting shoes on an off, just for the joy of mastering it. It is this energy that carries them through. Sometimes though, this work can be overwhelming for preschoolers, especially those who are genetically predisposed to depression.
Depression in preschoolers looks a little different than it does in older kids. Depressed preschoolers will often be even more emotional and visibly unhappy than other kids their age. They aren’t mature enough to try to hide it nor are they aware enough to ask for help. Parents can notice a somber demeanor, a lack of joy in their child and sometimes a much more emotionally labile temperament than they had seen before.
Identifying preschoolers with depression is challenging enough but then knowing what to do to help them is even harder. Therapy isn’t a good option because kids this age can’t explore their feelings in that way. Therapy to change parenting behaviors in the hope of affecting the child’s behaviors (which works well for oppositional children) won’t work well either here either because the problem isn’t based in parenting strategies that have reinforced undesirable behavior. Medication may be an option but there is no science to guide us about dose, safety or long-term effects of treatment vs. letting the depression improve on its own.
It is a quandary, but understanding that a preschool can be depressed is important because this is very certainly a biochemical, organic depression and this type is likely to return throughout childhood.
If you suspect your child has depression, the best approach is to seek care with a child psychologist or a child psychiatrist. They can help wade through the challenges and management options.