Parents should strive to take away some of the pressure weighing on their child and create opportunities for him to find activities he enjoys and feels good about doing.
Today's Children in a Pressure Cooker
"It used to be, a kid could get average grades, play kick-the-can, read a few books at the public library, and that would be good enough. Now being average has become stigmatized."
So says Dr. Abraham Havivi, a child psychiatrist in Los Angeles. Havivi believes the pressures of modern life have led to an increase in depression in children. Now, at the end of the 20th century, parents perceive that the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" is widening. Consequently, they try to ensure that their children will become part of the "haves" by urging kids to excel in the classroom, on the athletic field and in their social circles. Although parents have their children's best interests at heart, they may be unwittingly forcing kids to assume too much responsibility too soon.
Julie Drake, a former elementary school teacher who now works for the Los Angeles County Office of Education, adds that kids today have a lot more homework than their counterparts 10 or 20 years ago.
"It's not necessarily meaningful homework, plus they have dance lessons, sports lessons," says Drake. "There's not enough time to sit back and process the day's events."
Fifth-grade teacher, Carmen Dean, attributes the increase in childhood depression in part to our MTV culture.
"Boys are made to think they have to have a pretty babe, a big car, all this external stuff. Girls feel they have to live up to this impossible physical ideal, so immediately there's a sense of failure. It used to be 14- and 15-year-olds who were reacting to these messages. Now it's filtering down to the younger kids."
Situational Depression - In a Slump
It's normal for a preteen's burgeoning hormones and increasing need for autonomy to cause mood swings. Dr. Havivi says parents shouldn't overreact if, occasionally, their children get down on themselves. According to Havivi, kids commonly suffer from "situational depression" -- frustrations stemming from problems with school pressures or with friends. This kind of slump is short-lived and usually will lift without intervention.
Sixth-grader, Blake Clausen, experienced such a slump when he left the nurturing world of his small elementary school to begin seventh grade at a much larger junior high. A genial boy who adjusted remarkably well to his parents' divorce, his mother's subsequent remarriage and the birth of his half-sister, Blake found the first few weeks of junior high to be the most stressful time of his life.
"Suddenly, he has to change classrooms, he's expected to keep his notebooks a certain way, and he's passing eighth-graders with beards in the hall," says Blake's mother, Gina, looking a bit overwhelmed herself.
Blake readily admits the school pressures have affected his temperament.
"I'll be really happy one minute, then an hour later, I'll be in the worst mood, like if I forget my homework," he says.
Luckily, Blake's bad moods last no more than an hour. And after several weeks in junior high, he feels he's better able to handle the stress. He attributes part of this newfound ease to his parents' reassurances.
"They told me once I got used to the schoolwork, things would get better. And they did."
Does Your Child Have Clinical Depression?
Parents should be concerned about their child's depression if it continues for a long period of time and is so pervasive that it colors everything. This is clinical depression, which Dr. Havivi likens to wearing "gray-tinted glasses." He explains that the seriously depressed child feels that "everything is bad, nothing is fun, and no one likes him or her."
In assessing possible clinical depression in a preteen, Havivi examines the major areas of the child's life: family, social, academic and the interior world. Havivi says that most of the troubled preteens he sees don't have major depression. Instead, they're demoralized by frustrations in one of the primary areas. Once Havivi pinpoints the problem, he works with the family to devise an appropriate treatment. For instance, if a bright boy is making poor grades at a highly competitive school, his parents might consider transferring him to a school that provides a more nurturing environment. Or, if a teacher complains that a girl seems distracted by her constant doodling, the parents might want to enroll the child in an art class instead of inadvertently thwarting her creativity by insisting she quit doodling.