For the past three months, my 6 year-old nephew, Joseph, says things like, “I hate myself, nobody likes me, nobody loves me, I’m stupid.” His parents have been divorced for four years, his father lives in another state, rarely sees him but calls weekly, has remarried and is expecting a child. Joseph’s mother has shown signs of depression and negativity about life in general in the presence of Joseph. Any insight you can provide on the reason for Joseph putting himself down would be greatly appreciated.
Many people do not want to accept the fact that young children can become clinically depressed. They often will not show the same kinds of signs and symptoms that a depressed adult will show, but they may do things such as have a change in their usual patterns of behavior: become more aggressive or more withdrawn, become apathetic, have a change in their eating, sleeping, playing, or school performance, or make self-disparaging or angry comments.
It is absolutely critical to take such signs seriously and to seek professional help immediately. Children with untreated depression will be affected not just in their current life situation, but for the rest of their future as well.
Having depressive episodes, especially early in life, puts a child at an immense risk for future depressions. Depression in the present affects a child’s ability to develop and to learn normally, and has an influence on how the child relates to the world and to others and how he learns to form trusting and secure bonds.
Your nephew is at risk for depression not just because of the traumas and losses he has suffered (parental divorce, loss of his father, depression in his mother), but because he carries a genetic risk for bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder (manic depressive illness) has a strong genetic component. Although the usual age of onset of the disorder is in the teens or early adulthood, many specialists believe that there can be mood disturbances in children who are carrying the genetic vulnerability for the disorder.
It’s very important that you help Joseph’s mother obtain a mental health evaluation for herself, and even more importantly, an evaluations for Joseph.
Ideally, he should be seen by a child psychiatrist — someone who can do a thorough evaluation, do talking therapy, and if necessary, prescribe medications. Although it is never anyone’s preference to have a young child take psychiatric medications, the consequences of an untreated clinical depression in a child are serious and far-reaching.