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Raising an Optimistic Child
A Proven Plan for Depression-Proofing Young Childrenâ?"For Life
By BOB MURRAY, ALICIA FORTINBERRY
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2006Bob Murray and Alicia Fortinberry
All rights reserved.
The Key to Parenting an Optimistic Child
Emma, usually a lively, healthy, and inquisitive four-year-old who enjoyed play dates and games, became increasingly lethargic, obstinate, and uncommunicative. Her mother, Laura, grew concerned when Emma continued to have trouble sleeping. She also stopped wanting to play with her friends or go to preschool or even roughhouse with her dad, and she complained of constant stomachaches. When Emma's pediatrician couldn't find a physical cause for the problems, he suggested putting Emma on antidepressants.
Laura, who was concerned about the use of drugs not proven for young children, contacted Bob. "I'm frantic and confused," she told him. "Nothing seems to work, and I just get more frustrated and less patient and able to cope."
"Tell me about what's been happening at home," he suggested.
"Things haven't been great," Laura admitted. "My husband, Julian, has been under enormous pressure at work over the past year, and we seem to fight all the time. I've been worried about what would happen if Julian loses his job, trying to save every penny, and at the same time terrified that the relationship might fall apart. Come to think of it, we've both been upset and distracted around Emma, and maybe she's reacting to that."
"Let's work on improving how you and Julian get along and handle stress," suggested Bob. "I can also recommend some simple parenting principles that might help." Four months later, the couple's relationship had vastly improved, allowing them to support each other through a difficult time and also to focus more on Emma's needs.
Raising an optimistic, emotionally healthy child isn't easy in today's stressful world. By attending to the factors in Emma's environment that were setting her up for depression and following some practical parenting guidelines, her parents not only enormously increased their young child's well-being but also established the groundwork for her lifelong optimism and resilience.
The Depression Epidemic
Similar to Emma, more and more young children are being diagnosed with depression and related disorders, such as anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as early as age one (or even birth).
In its 2001 report "Depression in Children and Adolescents," the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) stated that one in three American children suffers from depression, and 4 percent of children under age six—more than a million—are diagnosed as depressed. More recent studies show that the real number is probably much higher and, according to a recent Harvard study, rising at a rate of 23 percent a year. Alarmingly, preschoolers are the fastest growing market for antidepressants, despite government warnings of possible dangers and the fact that, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), antidepressants probably don't work for kids anyway.
However, a far greater problem is the many more children who may not display depression symptoms but who are experiencing events in their crucial first six years that will lead to emotional problems later on. As children reach adolescence and move on to college, more than 60 percent will suffer bouts of severe depression. According to NIMH, suicide is now the third most frequent cause of teenage death. A 2001 report by the World Health Organization states that by the time your young child is a teenager, depression will be the number-two killer in the world (second only to heart disease, to which depression is a contributory factor). Even the depression that is increasingly affecting the elderly can have its origins in very early life.
Depression and Anxiety in the Modern Family
At the heart of the depression epidemic is the enormous pressure our modern lifestyle places on the unsupported and increasingly fragmented family, commercial interests that target even younger "consumers," and a deteriorating social and ecological environment. All of these can create trauma in young children, deprive them of their emotional needs, and strip them of their innate optimism.
It's difficult to raise your child to be confident, purposeful, emotionally healthy, and optimistic if you're worried about developing your career (or just keeping your job), paying bills, maintaining a good relationship with your partner, eating right and exercising, and meeting the countless responsibilities of modern life. There just never seems to be enough time. The situation is made worse if you've also lost many traditional sources of support, such as helpful relatives living nearby, a close-knit neighborhood, or understanding physicians and clergy with sufficient time to listen to your problems and proffer unbiased advice. It's even harder for isolated single parents or conflict-ridden blended families.
Familial stresses and their effects on the child are far more potent risk factors for depression than individual genetic predisposition, although these environmental factors can turn the gene for depression on—or off. In fact, your child can become depressed without ever having that gene, or be depression-free even if he does.
Taking control of your own emotional life is the best thing you can do to ensure your child's emotional health. Twenty-five to 30 percent of women suffer from depression, and children of depressed parents have a 40 percent chance of developing depression themselves, as compared to 20 percent for the population as a whole (male and female). While being depressed and anxious doesn't necessarily make you a bad parent or condemn your child to a mood disorder, it is important that you seek help. The more optimistic you become, the more your child's natural optimism can come to the fore.
At Odds with Our Genes
As far as paleontologists and anthropologists can tell, long-lasting clinical depression did not exist among our hunter-gatherer ancestors. In fact, according to biopsychologist Bjørn Grinde, humans are innately optimistic "because a good mood, and to some extent a rose-colored view of the world, is to the genes' advantage." Faith in a positive outcome, each other, and the gods gave early humans the determination and resilience to endure difficult conditions such as drought until the rains came.
However, the mismatch between how we live and how we were genetically designed to function threatens to turn off our species' inbuilt genetic predisposition for optimism and create a pessimistic society. We are, as Grinde says, a "Stone Age creature in a Jet Age zoo."
The advent of farming, which replaced the hunter-gatherer lifestyle anywhere from five to ten thousand years ago, altered, for the worse, the way we relate to each other and to our environment. The hunter-gatherer band fully supported both parents and children, who were valued by the entire tribe and, to a large extent, raised communally. A young mother needs other women around much of the time to share the burden, take her child when she's weary, give advice, and lend emotional support. Day care and the occasional mothers' group meeting are not adequate substitutes. A father of a young child also needs the advice, company, and backup of other men.
In humans the art of parenting, like so many other things, is learned, not instinctual. Unlike a kangaroo or mountain goat, you weren't born knowing how to parent effectively. Through what writer and biologist Matt Ridley calls "nature via nurture," nature equips us with genes that predispose us to learn by experience. Today, as in ancient times, child rearing is a skill acquired largely by observation. A hunter-gatherer girl learned mothering from observing all the other women in the tribe and by looking
Excerpted from Raising an Optimistic Child by BOB MURRAY. Copyright © 2006 by Bob Murray and Alicia Fortinberry. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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