Depression In Children: Can Toddlers Get the Blues?

child's bike in grassHas your toddler been listening to a lot of Morrissey? Wearing too much black eyeliner? Keeping the door of their room closed and not coming down to dinner? It may be more than a phase.

But seriously, an increasing number of clinical psychologists are seeing what they call "early onset depression" in 2- and 3-year-old.

Whether this sounds spot-on or like a twisted combination of over-diagnosing and over-parenting, Pamela Paul's long treatment of the topic in the new New York Times magazine is well worth reading. 

It contains absolutely heart-breaking quotes like this one from a boy known by "Kiran" before a trip to Disney World: "Mickey lies. Dreams don't come true."


Of course, that's actually kind of true. Mickey can be a liar. The sad thoughts of depressed adults are also often justified. The problem is dwelling on these feelings until they become debilitating or self-fulfilling. And of course the horror of thoughts like these are compounded when you hear them from a small child. 

Child psychiatrist Joan Luby of the Washington University School of Medicine is one of the new set of researchers who say depression among the pre-K set is real, and she diagnosed Kiran with the disorder.

Luby says the idea is "very threatening" but has become more accepted in the last 20 years. 

"Some hard-core scientists still brush off the idea as mushy or psychobabble, and laypeople think the idea is ridiculous."

I know "ridiculous" is what came to my mind when I first saw this story. If there's one thing I've learned about tiny children, it's that there's no label you can put on them -- good eater, terrible sleeper, willful toddler, fussy baby -- that will stick. Change is the only constant.

And the idea of piling on our already drugged children with kiddie Prozac or Zoloft (in bubblegum flavor no doubt) is just horrifying.

But as the story points out, as recently as the 1980s, the idea that teenagers could be depressed was considered silly, and I don't think many of us would dismiss it now. And many adults who are undeniably depressed say the feelings they have go back as far as they can remember, rather than arriving with adulthood as we've come to expect. The stories of the toddlers Paul tells are truly heart-wrenching, and they demand something more than the usual methods. 

But I'd hold off on running to a psychiatrist with a kid that refuses to eat or sleep. That's just the hand most of us were dealt.

Do you think toddlers can be depressed or is this just scientific BS?


Image via Avolore/Flickr

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