Theories of Depression
Much work has been done to determine why children become depressed, and there are several groups of theories that have been developed. Understanding these theories allows you to understand how and why your child is depressed. No single theory can answer all of your questions about your child's depression. Therefore, it becomes important for you to know a little about each one so that you can start developing a plan of attack.
These theories of depression examine how the brain's chemistry, hormonal changes, and a family's history of mental illness contribute to the development of depression. In other words, it really takes a close look at the family and child's body to see if the depression is affected by physical factors. While this sounds quite simple, the biology of the brain and body is complex.
Identical twins develop from a single fertilized egg. Two separate eggs create fraternal twins. Genetically, identical twins are the same. If one twin suffers from depression, the other is much more likely to become depressed, too. Fraternal twins share only half the same genetic material, so the rates for both having depression are not as high.
When there are factors within your body that you have little control over, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness make you believe you will never be okay again. It is not true. If a child has certain biological components that predispose him to depression, it is not a sure bet that he will become depressed. What it does mean is that you will have to be vigilant in watching for warning signs and also help your child develop other skills that can help reduce the effects of biology.
Psychologists have long studied child development and how a child's evolving personality affects this early period of life. The attachment theory focuses on how the mother, or another central caregiver if the mother is not available, and the child bonded from the start. It is thought that this is the child's most influential relationship during this time. Generally, if the bond provided the child with physical and psychological security along with consistent love, the child would be more immune from mental illness. You can see why it is so important for this particular caregiver to be emotionally healthy and prepared to take on the challenges of parenting.
Different psychologists have their own theories of when the attachment phase ends, but they do agree about two things. First, it is crucial for the child's development that attachment happens during the first year. Second, it is during the first two years that a child learns about independence and dependence and finds a healthy balance between the two.
As a result of the child's relationship with her mother, there are three kinds of attachment that may develop: secure attachment; avoidant attachment; and resistant attachment.
Obviously, all mothers or major caregivers strive for their children to have secure attachments. This means that the child knows she is loved and that that person protects her. Her caregiver is always there, waiting to provide that sense of comfort as she needs it.
You have experienced this as you have watched your child wiggle from your arms, anxious to be free to crawl or walk around and explore her little world. Then, just as quickly as she wandered off, she was back, craving to be in your arms where everything was okay. As a child gets older, if she has had a secure attachment, she develops a strong core of trust and confidence that prepares her to meet future challenges. In addition, her adult relationships are apt to be healthy and happy.
If a child develops an avoidant attachment, she may avoid closeness with her caregiver. The interactions between the caregiver and the child likely have been inconsistent and have often neglected the child's emotional needs. The resulting view of this child's world is that the attachment cannot be trusted, and she feels safest when disengaged from others.
Much like the avoidant attachment, the resistant attachment also has its roots in an inconsistent, unreliable bond between the caregiver and child. This is a more angry attachment, so to speak, because this child will more aggressively resist the caregiver's attempts at closeness. Whether the attachment is avoidant or resistant, both types make an individual more vulnerable to depression.
It should be stressed that the major caregiver is not solely responsible for making sure the healthy attachment is achieved. Just like adults, children have characteristics that influence how they interact with others. As a baby, if your child was sensitive to touch, you may have had more trouble bonding because of his avoidance of touch.
Or perhaps your baby was high-strung. This child might not have been able to tolerate a lot of closeness due to his anxiety. Feelings and behaviors can be contagious. In other words, if you sensed that your baby didn't want to be held or nurtured, your feelings may have been hurt or perhaps you thought you needed to work harder at it. However you responded was a perfectly normal reaction, but you can now understand how you couldn't be completely in control of this process.
Your parenting and your child's temperament are not the only reasons that poor attachments develop. A divorce that takes away the major caregiver can interfere and disrupt the attachment process and cause tremendous harm. If a caregiver were to die, the loss would wreak havoc on a child's emotional development.
Behavioral theories of depression look at outside causes of behavior and their influence on the development of symptoms. You have probably heard of Pavlov, who studied dogs' behavior. He offered dogs powder that smelled of meat and measured how much saliva they produced.
As the days passed, he learned that the dogs would start salivating as soon as he entered the room. He coined the term “classical conditioning” and hypothesized that animals and people learn by watching and responding to what the environment presents.
Pavlov tried another study where the dogs were taught they'd get meat if they could recognize a circle presented to them. If an oval shape was presented, however, the dog would receive an electrical shock. As the trials of the experiment progressed, the circles and ovals were changed such that the two shapes were barely distinguishable. The dogs couldn't tell the difference either, so at the prospect of getting meat or a shock, rather than salivating they became very anxious and even bit at themselves. Pavlov concluded that psychological discomfort or distress was a direct result of not knowing what was going to happen along with a lack of control over situations.
In the context of depression, if a child has a parent that is sometimes loving and at other times physically abusive, he learns that he cannot predict what is going to happen to him, and as a result he becomes skittish when the abusive parent enters the room. If this pattern continues, his nervousness can develop into depression.
Albert Bandura came up with the theory of social learning. He hypothesized that children learn by watching others and modeling their behaviors. Behavior, or in this case depression, is the result of the interaction between the child and others in his world. For example, if you cope with frustration by hitting your fist against the wall, chances are pretty good your child will have plenty of opportunities to see you doing this. You may have heard “He acts just like his mother!” So don't be surprised if your child picks up on some of your less desirable behaviors!
According to social learning theory, children and teens have probably seen thousands of examples of people who handle life's upsets in unhealthy, ineffective ways. These children model what they see and find themselves frustrated, helpless, and depressed. You need to look for opportunities to turn ordinary experiences into teachable moments because your child really is watching you!
Likewise, your child will learn appropriate ways of managing his behaviors and feelings if he has healthy models to watch. If you are angry about your day at work and you say to your child “I am feeling angry right now. I am going to take a few minutes and calm down before we play,” you have taught him three invaluable lessons.
First, you avoid taking your anger out on him. Second, you have labeled your emotion so that when he feels angry he is able to express it in a healthy, non-aggressive way. Third, you also taught him that there is something he can do to get himself under control. Bet you never thought two little sentences could do so much!
“You are what you think.” Theorists who came up with this view of the human condition would have told you that depression was a state of mind. According to Albert Ellis, there is a very strong relationship between thinking, feeling, and behaving. He believed that if you could change either how you thought, felt, or behaved, the other two operations would change.
Cognitive theorists focused on the act of thinking as being the conduit to changing feelings and behavior. Depression and other negative states were the result of irrational thoughts, and if these thoughts could be replaced with rational ones, the depression would lift and self-esteem would increase.
Martin Seligman introduced the concept of “learned helplessness.” How a person navigates hardships and setbacks determines whether she will become depressed. If a child feels helpless and lacks a positive view of self, she is more likely to become depressed than the child who is more persistent in the face of difficulty.
As you can see, there are many ways to view depression. If you are worried that you should adopt one theory or another in order to get a handle on depression, resist that urge. Theories are just that — theories. More models of how depression occurs are being produced every year.
The focus of this book is to help you learn about your child's depression, how it might have come about, and what you can do about it. Having an understanding that many factors contribute to depression gives you a better ability to recognize what your particular child is experiencing.