“If we nurture the dreams of children, the world will be blessed. If we destroy them, the world is doomed!”
– Wess Stafford
Sadness makes me sad. Or at least the more than fleeting sadness of longstanding despair and depression does.
It’s especially sad when the natural energy and optimism of childhood is usurped by the grinding ache of childhood depression.
It’s so poignant when we hear of children who feel life isn’t worth living, who feel doomed to lives of misery or even feel like killing themselves.
And it may well be that depression, low self-esteem, and anxiety are more prevalent in children now than ever before.1
If childhood suicide rates2 and admissions to hospital for self-harm are anything to go by, childhood depression is trending upwards.
I’ve written here about helping individual child clients. In this piece I’m going to talk more generally about the factors that might leave children vulnerable to depression and what we as a society may need to do to reduce this trend.
So why might childhood depression be on the rise?
What is depressing our young?
It’s seldom easy or wise to point to one factor when looking for reasons. Especially when dealing with a complex emotional disorder such as depression.
But we can be sure that when emotional needs aren’t met adequately and children ruminate about those unfulfilled needs, then depression may result.3
So what might be blocking the completion of childhood emotional needs? Just as a reminder, the emotional human needs as delineated by Human Givens psychology are:
- Feeling safe and secure.
- Being given (and also having the chance to give) adequate positive attention. If a child doesn’t receive positive attention, they may act out to gain negative attention, as any attention may feel better than none.
- Emotional intimacy – feeling unconditionally loved and accepted by at least one person.
- Feeling included and part of a wider community
- Privacy – having an opportunity to reflect and consolidate experience (this may also link to a sense of safety)
- A sense of status within social groupings. When children feel good at something, and confident and recognized for their qualities by others, they can build healthy self esteem – which feeds into…
- A sense of competence and achievement. Learning helps build self-esteem and is intrinsically satisfying. A curious mind is often a happy mind.
- Meaning and purpose, which come from being stretched in what we do and think.
As we look at what the experts are telling us as far as why more children may be depressed, self-harming, anxious, and suicidal, you’ll see that doing so though a Human Givens lens makes everything clearer.
Social and cultural changes
One major factor that may be contributing to the rise in depression in children is the fast-paced and competitive nature of our modern society. While materially most children, even in developing countries, are better off than even 50 years ago, there is a unrelenting bombardment from the media – perhaps primarily to adults, but it percolates down to children – of threat, cynicism, and a sense that we are all adrift in an ever-changing flux of uncertainty.
Children may pick up on political polarization and therefore anger from adults. The certainties and belief structures that once enabled children to feel secure may have dropped away.
If this is true, we can see that it may be harder for children to meet their need for a sense of safety and security. And when one need remains unmet, such as the bedrock need for a sense of safety, it may also be harder for the child to meet other needs, such as for a sense of competency and so on.
Another factor that may contribute to depression in children is family dynamics. A child’s family may be protective – or it may be a risk factor.
The family unit has changed significantly over the past few decades, with an increase in single-parent households, dual-income households, and divorce.
These changes can create a sense of instability and insecurity for children, which may contribute to depression. A child may miss a parent whom they no longer live with or develop a generalized sense of uncertainty or the feeling that nothing can ever work out for the good.
Of course, divorces can be amicable and may even teach a child that it’s possible to resolve conflicts maturely. But a protracted and bitter parental divorce may play havoc with children’s mental health,4 as can continual parental arguing.
Having a parent who is depressed also seems to be a risk factor for children becoming depressed.5 While this may partly relate to genetics, the attitudes and behaviours children learn from that parent are likely just as important, if not more so.
Psychologist Martin Seligman’s explanatory styles theory proposes that the way individuals explain events to themselves determines their emotional and behavioural reactions. And Seligman found that children often pick up their explanatory style from their primary caregiver.6
People who have a more optimistic explanatory style tend to attribute positive events to internal, stable, and global factors and negative events to external, unstable, and specific factors, while individuals with a pessimistic explanatory style tend to do the opposite.
If a parent continually laments their bad luck, expresses the feeling that negative factors will last forever while positive ones will be short lived, and that one bad event impacts every part of life, then the child may pick up these depressive thinking styles.
The effects of abuse from parents, step-parents, or siblings can also be, not surprisingly, depressing for a child. Though there’s little evidence that parental abuse has increased significantly in recent decades.
So what has increased?
Social media usage
The huge proliferation of social media usage may also contribute to rising rates of depression in children.
Social media can create a false sense of reality in which children are pressured to appear to be perfect, have the perfect face and body, always be living their ‘best life’, and be accepted by others and continually approved.
The rise in this kind of childhood means there is less face-to-face interaction. As boys seem to spend more time using technology to game, it may be girls who suffer most from the downsides of social media. But it’s more nuanced than that I think.
Social media usage only seems to lead to depression when it results in cyberbullying, loss of sleep, and lack of exercise and outdoor time.7 Talking of which, there may be another big factor in why more children are suffering ill mental health.
A terrible decline in children’s independent activity
A recent study found that children’s mental health is worsening because they no longer have opportunities to play independently and take responsibility for themselves.8
This to me is mindblowing.
When I was six years old I’d walk the mile to school and the mile home again with a couple of friends. We had to cross roads and negotiate any disagreements we had between ourselves. Sometimes there were fights. There were plenty of adventures. On the weekends I’d play outside all day. We’d run through the woods and negotiate risks. I felt like the master of my little sun-kissed domain.
Adult supervision was there, but so far in the background as to feel negligible. It was the same for all the kids I knew. There may have been the odd coddled kid whose parents wouldn’t let him or her run free, but I don’t recall any.
In the US in 1969, 48% of children walked or biked to school. That figure has sunk to 13%.9
So why is this important?
Good intentions pave the road to Hell
The fear of traffic and stranger danger may be the driving forces behind adults oversupervising their children’s time. Parents may also take their cue from other parents who are overprotective. And to an extent that’s understandable.
Yet encouraging risk aversion in children may, paradoxically, carry huge risks to their mental wellbeing.
The flip side of our attempts to keep our children safe is that they are losing that all-important sense of adventure, autonomy, and self-direction, and even of being embedded within a part of a wider community. Not to mention outside time and exercise.
Being overcontrolled blocks the completion of many of the primal human needs, and unsupervised play may be more vital to childhood welfare than many adults realize.
Less freedom to roam, more pressure to achieve
One of the authors of the study that flagged the association between independent play and depression, Professor Bjorklund, said:
“Unlike other crises, such as the COVID epidemic, this decline in independent activity, and hence, mental wellbeing in children has crept up on us gradually, over decades, so many have barely noticed it. Moreover, unlike other health crises, this one is not the result of a highly contagious virus, but rather the result of good intentions carried too far – intentions to protect children and provide what many believed to be better (interpreted as more) schooling, both in and out of actual schools.”
So how can we as a society help our children toward greater happiness and wellbeing and therefore less depression?
Happier kids for a happier world
There are a few changes that I would suggest parents might make, and also we as a society encourage:
1. Encourage more free play and autonomy
One antidote to the loss of a sense of autonomy that many children seem to be suffering though over-coddling might be for parents to actively help their children gain a sense of personal autonomy. Safety is one thing, but ‘safetyism’ (a culture or attitude that safety, which has come to mean emotional safety too, is the only consideration) may be depressing children through the law of unintended consequences.
Giving children just a bit more independence so they don’t turn into frightened and neurotic adults may be vital. Independence and unsupervised free time can be increased gradually. Maybe an extra hour per week at first, and then build from there. Give children small responsibilities and understand that the best ‘protection’ for them may be to be more hands-off sometimes.
2. Spread knowledge about the basic primal emotional needs
Teach parents, teachers, and children about their primal emotional needs and build their emotional skills. Martin Seligman found that teaching children who were at risk of developing depression about the explanatory styles could help inoculate them against developing depression later on and avoid the pitfalls of learned helplessness.10
3. Limit time online and help build a world beyond social media.
Children may need to do their homework online and feel especially excluded if they are disallowed from spending any time on social media. But some limitations may drastically help the mental and physical wellbeing of the child.
Encouraging children to do real, embodied activities such as sports and other activities and pursuing interests that involve face-to-face, live action away from screens and the more toxic effects of life online is something we could all encourage.
We need to see the signs of unhappiness and depression in children – such as increased isolation and withdrawal from formerly enjoyed activities – as early as possible.
Childhood is, of course, formative. The pains, hopes, fears and delights of childhood can be so vivid.
We owe it to the coming generations and the future of the world to help nurture and strengthen our young.
Learn Mark’s Approach to Treating Depression
Depression is a signal that says ‘my life isn’t working’. Working from the perspective of what people need to be functional and satisfied, using a process that makes change happen fast, Mark’s approach to depression is now used by thousands of practitioners around the world. You can read more about his online depression course here.
- Seligman, M. E. P. (1990). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Vintage Books.
- McDonald, N. C., Brown, A. L., Marchetti, L. M., & Pedroso, M. S. (2011). U.S. School Travel, 2009: An Assessment of Trends. Retrieved from https://mcdonald.web.unc.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/8583/2014/12/McDonald_etal_SchoolTravel2009NHTS_AJPM2011.pdf.
- See Seligman’s book for an in-depth review of this research: Seligman, M. (2007). The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience. Mariner Books.
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