Can a toddler be depressed? How can parents help?
A very important question to ask ourselves is: Can toddlers become depressed? When we think of depression, we think of teens and adults suffering this affliction as they have lived through enough of life, there can be enough to merit having depression. But toddlers are between the ages of 1 and 3. Surely they haven’t had enough in their lives to cause depression, right?
A toddlers’ brain is a lot like a computer set to factory settings: fresh and ready to absorb all data. What does it mean? It means they will observe and internalize everything possible. All five senses are little receptors to perform the task. Let them experience healthy, and they will absorb it. Let them experience unhealthy, and they will be unhealthy. If they see violence, hearing aggression, watching dad beat mom or mom beat dad, experiencing one parent constantly absent. So, they will internalize these experiences, and it will become the framework for their lives.
The chemicals in their brains will become off, causing imbalances within them, and they will suffer from the “monkey see, monkey do syndrome.” They will mimic everything you say and do, and when they are yelled at because of it, they will become confused and hurt. They will sink into depression, and if depression is allowed to set in early without being treated, it will make their lives so much worse. So what do we do about it?
We can’t do anything for our child until we first recognize there is a problem. What is your child displaying? Here are some warning signs to look for: Loss of appetite or increase in appetite, loss of interest in activities they normally are interested in, trouble sleeping or sleeping too much, withdrawn, doesn’t talk as much, their energy level is down just to name a few. Are they displaying these signs? How long? If it’s only one or two days, then they may just be sad. But if it’s lasting longer, for days at a time, then they may have depression, and it’s time to try and take care of it.
You’ve recognized the signs. Now it’s time to examine the causes. What’s going on in their lives? What contributed to their feelings of depression? With depression, there are two major causes: born with a chemical imbalance in the brain or environmental. We as parents need to look at environmental causes before merely saying it’s a chemical imbalance. What’s going on in the home? Is there a lot of fighting? Is there violence? Neglect? Is your child being picked on? Bullied? Are we not choosing our words correctly and affecting their mood?
So many times, we are the cause of it, whether intentional or not and if we want to affect a change, then we need to be the change in their lives. Sometimes to fix their depression, we just need to fix ourselves and our home, which is supposed to be a place of safety. If the home is good after an honest, hard look, then the cause may be a chemical imbalance and therefore jump straight to tip five and start there before using the rest of the tips.
In times of depression, what everyone needs most, especially a child, is emotional support. Life is trying, and they’re struggling. The absolute best action we can take for them is to be there for them emotionally. Make them feel like they aren’t alone; let them feel we’re there to help them, let them see we will help pick them up. Just one time will have a profound effect, but doing it consistently? Their lives will be so much better for it. Give them hugs, talk to them, listen if they’re able to speak, let them feel our presence, play with them, give them our time. After all, it’s what’s most needed right now. It may not fix the problem immediately, but with time and effort, they can overcome their depression.
Spending time with us is all well and good and will certainly go a long way, but something which may push them beyond is social interaction. Get them with children their age and encourage them to have fun. Show them it’s okay for them to have fun. Take them to the park or a bouncy house and let them run wild for a while. Positive interaction has a proven positive reaction to the dopamine centers in our brains and triggers endorphins as well, all of which helps to balance out the other chemicals within their brains, contributing to their depression. It also helps boosts their metabolism, so if they’ve been struggling with eating, social interaction can help with it.
Whether it’s a chemical imbalance or we’ve simply tried everything we can to help our child overcome depression, there may come a time where it’s simply beyond our realm of problem-solving. If it happens, don’t be afraid to make the important choice of getting them professional help. At such a young age, unless it’s deemed warranted after very careful consideration usually involving more than one professional, our child won’t receive medication. I know a lot of us do worry about it, but whether they are on medication or not, we can no longer afford to worry.
Our children are too important to worry about it. A professional is going to be able to speak with them in ways we simply cannot and be able to observe them and interact with them on a higher level to truly be able to see where they are at and where to go from there. What will likely happen is they will give you solutions which involve the tips listed above, but they will speak them in a way that is specific to the needs of the child, which will, in turn, help us to focus on helping our child meet those needs. Too much stigma has been put on seeing therapists, especially for our child, but if a child if needing help, it’s time to put those aside.