When a parent's sad, a child needs to know it's not his fault

Child Life

March 01, 1998|By Beverly Mills | Beverly Mills,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

I've been looking for a way to explain depression to a preschooler, and I'm not having much luck. -- Susan S.

When a parent has no energy, doesn't eat much and acts grouchy, depression turns into a family affair. An honest, simple explanation about what's going on makes the illness much easier for a child to deal with, experts and readers say.

"Depression affects everyone in the family, from infants through grandparents," says David G. Fass-ler, M.D., co-author of "Help Me, I'm Sad" (Viking, $22.95, Canada $31.99). "It's an illness just as much as the flu."

Two points need to be made clear to children of all ages, Fassler says: Depression is not the child's fault, and it can be treated.

It's best to use simple words when explaining this to a child, and it's up to the parent to decide how much information the child can handle, says Fassler, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Burlington, Vt.

To a preschooler, Fassler suggests saying something like: "Mommy's sad and tired. The important thing for you to know is that it's not your fault. I'm going to the doctor to get the help I need."

Parents then need to get help from a health care provider who looks at the big picture -- what brought on the depression, the impact on the family and the best treatment, Fassler advises.

Reader Jordan Christopher of Charlotte, N.C., suggests that parents describe the illness as feeling sad all the time, "much like they would feel if they had lost a favorite toy or had a pet that died, or got in trouble with mom and dad."

If a child can identify with the examples used, she can begin to understand what the parent is going through, says another Charlotte reader, Chris Ecker.

In some families, a child not only identifies with the parent, she starts to show similar symptoms, Fassler says. She may retreat to her room and cry, have trouble sleeping and lose interest in playing with other kids. To avoid this, it's important to give a child as much stability as possible, such as providing consistent daily routines, Fassler says.

For more information on mental health, Fassler suggests parents contact the American Academy of Child and Adolescent

Psychiatry at 800-333-7636, or the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill at 800-950-6264.

Several readers recommend a coloring book called "What Happened to Mommy?" written by Renee Fran and illustrated by Floris Freshman.

Two siblings in the coloring book are puzzled about "why mommy doesn't seem like mommy. "She isn't coughing or sneezing and "doesn't have any dots or bumps or rashes," but she has trouble sleeping, has no appetite and says sad things. They wonder if it is their fault.

At the end, mom's medication and therapy work, and she's not so sad anymore.

"It was written for a child to help understand what was wrong with their mother," reader Tina Anthony says.

The coloring book can be ordered for $7.95, which includes shipping and handling. An order form asks that checks be made payable to "Rene." The address is R.D. Eastman, P.O. Box 290663, Brooklyn, N.Y., 11229.

Can you help?

Here's a new question from a parent who needs your help. If you have tips, or if you have questions of your own, please call our toll-free hot line any time at 800-827-1092. Or write to Child Life, 2322 Hales Road, Raleigh, N.C. 27608, or send e-mail to bevmillol.com.

* Self-esteem issue: "I have a 7-year-old, and I'd like to know what do you do when he says he hates himself," asks G.B. of East Cleveland, Ohio.

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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