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Musings on Harry Potter, Sparked by New Findings on Depression in Preschoolers

August 5, 2009 - 10:11am

The first Harry Potter book has become part our family's bedtime reading this summer, and my 7-year-old daughter is even more entranced than I was when the young wizard came into my life at age 29. But in returning to the book now, as a parent, something is gnawing at me about the dear boy: Given what he had to suffer through in his early childhood, how did he manage to come out so well-adjusted?

For deprived adults who haven't read the book, let me explain. Harry spent the first 10 years of his life in a cupboard under the stairs. His parents died suddenly when he was a baby, so he was left to grow up in a house with his aunt, uncle and roly-poly bully of a cousin, Dudley. His aunt and uncle barely paid him any mind, but when they did, their growling responses were always negative. He was, in essence, verbally abused and ignored, not to mention half starved. It was a tough way to grow up. And yet he turned out to not only be a hero, but also a thoughtful, kind and productive person. You wouldn't call Harry happy-go-lucky, but you wouldn't describe him as depressed either.

Yes, I'm being a little facetious. I'm aware that Harry is a charming bit of fiction, at least to us muggles.

But the fact that author J.K. Rowling could endow him with such astounding resilience strikes me as an example of how adults tend to become oblivious to the importance of children's social environments at very young ages.

That needs to change. Researchers who examine the impact of social interactions among children from birth through age 3 have been finding evidence that the way children are treated as infants and toddlers has lasting effects -- not just on their future behaviors and thoughts, but on the architecture of their brains.

The research helps to explain why programs to help new mothers -- like the home visitation program that is part of the health care bill -- can have such a positive impact on young children. It isn't easy to take care of a baby when you're overwhelmed and sleep-deprived, not to mention stressed, poor and alone. It's a lot easier to smile and coo over your infant when a caring professional has just visited your home, helping you through struggles with breastfeeding or pointed out how your baby is already starting to show signs of early language development.

Now some new research in the Archives of General Psychiatry provides another hint of the importance of supportive social environments.

Psychiatrists used to think that signs of depression didn't show up until at least age 6. But over the last 20 years, research has shown that it can be identified in preschool. Its prevalence is not yet known, but one study suggested that depression affects about 2 percent of the population, the same rate found in school-aged children.

Researchers for the new study -- led by Joan L. Luby, director of the Early Emotional Development Program at Washington University at St. Louis -- wanted to know whether preschool depression might persist as children grow up. Could preschool depression simply be a moody phase, or something more serious? The answer, according to their analysis of data on 256 children 3 to 6 years old, was the latter. Preschoolers diagnosed with depression were 11 times more likely than non-depressed preschoolers to be suffering from it 12 months and 24 months later.

"Depression during the preschool years," the report said, is one of the "most robust and significant predictors of later depression."

The research also showed that young children with depression had experienced more stressful and traumatic events than those without the disorder. They were more likely to have experienced, for example, the death of a parent, physical or sexual abuse or they had been removed from what they knew as home.

The study's authors recommend vigilance among early childhood professionals who work with young children, urging them to look for signs of depression so that children can be treated as early as possible.  In a well-reported story on the findings by Lindsey Tanner of the Associated Press, experts stressed that this means using age-appropriate therapy (many psychiatrists recommend the use of pretend play and hands-on games) instead of putting 3-year-olds on medication.

For the children's sake, let's hope that research like this leads to more awareness of the significance of these early years -- and more informed, thoughtful approaches to helping children in these years. They aren't going to have the good fortune of being sent to Hogwarts.

UPDATE, 8/5/09 at 1:02 p.m.:  Joan L. Luby, lead author of the study, stresses that prescribing anti-depressants is not a safe way to treat depression in young children given how little is known about side effects. She and her team have written another article, to appear next month in The American Journal of Psychiatry, that provides details on a promising treatment that involves parents and children playing together. More details on that study can be found on the project page of the Early Emotional Development Program.

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