Play offers clues to preschoolers’ depression

Preschoolers are often believed to “mask” their depression with behavior problems, stomach aches or other physical complaints because they can’t express themselves verbally. But a new study has found that young children exhibit the same symptoms as depressed adults and older children.

As part of a five-year study of depression in preschoolers sponsored by the National Institutes of Mental Health, researchers interviewed the parents of 174 children between the ages of 3 and 5 1/2. The depressed children were much more likely to have anhedonia (lack of pleasure in activities), sadness, irritability and low energy than children who had no psychiatric problems or who had attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or oppositional defiant disorder.

“They don’t enjoy playing. They look sad and are irritable,” says principal investigator Dr. Joan Luby, assistant professor of child psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Some also engaged in play around negative or death themes and had disturbed sleep or appetite.

“Preschoolers are inherently joyful beings,” says Luby, “so if your preschooler begins to not enjoy activities or a favorite food and it lasts for many days, it’s a matter of concern.” The study was published in the March issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.


-- Dianne Partie Lange