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ABCs of preschool depression

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About 2 percent of preschoolers have depression, experts say. (WLS)

If your child seems sad all the time, or doesn't enjoy playtime the way he or she used to, it may not be just a passing phase.

As many as two percent of all preschoolers have depression and it's critical that parents recognize depression early so they can help manage the symptoms for a healthy and happier childhood.

Six-year-old "Tommy", as we'll call him, is in a better place these days. "Tommy's" family didn't want us to identify him because of the stigma that still surrounds depression. For a few years, his mother knew something wasn't right but nobody could figure out the cause.

"When he was very young we were told maybe its autism. Maybe it's diet. Sleeping patterns. Maybe this or that," said Tommy's mom.

"Tommy's" mom finally put the pieces together after doing research on the internet.

"I was searching around looking at those lists; is this your child? Check, check, check, check, check," his mom said.

Dr. Joan Luby, an internationally-known expert in childhood mental health, is a child psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis.

"We now know from research that's been done over the past 20 years that depression can arise as early as age three," Luby said.

Luby says what doctors refer to as preschool onset depression has many of the same symptoms as depression in older kids and adults.

"Parents should look for kids who are persistently sad and irritable, usually for more than two hours in a day, more days than not in a week," Luby said.

Parents should also watch for eating disturbances and sleep problems, like difficulty going to sleep, or waking up during the night. Be alert if your child doesn't engage in activities he or she used to love. Pay attention if your preschooler is frequently negative about themselves.

"We even in our latest study have picked up on quite a bit of suicidal ideation," Luby said.

For preschool-aged children, Dr. Luby recommends parent and child behavioral therapy. For "Tommy" and his family, those regular therapy sessions, involving time to play, have made all the difference.

"He's much more capable of regulating himself in the moment. There's more joy," said Tommy's mother.

Dr. Luby says anti-depressant medication is not recommended for treating children under the age of six.

She says the percentage of children with depression jumps from one or two-percent in preschool to eight-percent by the time children reach the adolescent years, ages 12 to 18.

If you would like more information, visit: www.ivanhoe.com.

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