There’s a new report out about kids with bi-polar disorder, and on Dragon’s Den last Sunday there was a businesswoman trying to get backing for her product designed to help depressed children, having been a sufferer herself, so that was good timing. I don’t want to diss her product or question her motives, she seemed absolutely genuine, but the fact that she had the professional backing of psychologists made my heart sink.
She had designed an interactive computer game marketed to schools, in which everything was positive, and a series of talking dolls marketed to parents in order to help increase their child’s self-esteem. The game was probably harmless, if bland, but the dolls filled me with horror. On pulling a cord they said things like ‘You are fantastic’ and ‘You are brilliant,’ and I can’t think of anything much sadder than that.
Saying someone is brilliant does not make it so. Praise doesn’t even count coming from a parent, my children just shrug and say ‘Well, yes but you’re my mum, so you would say that’ if I ever say anything nice about them (which is not often). ‘Actually’ I say ‘Whilst there is an element of truth in that, the fact is I am a very cool person and I don’t lie so I think you’ll find my opinion does count for something’ and they usually concede the point.
Praise from a teacher certainly doesn’t count; my kids are embarrassed whenever they get positive comments from school: ‘They give the praise to the badly-behaved kids to encourage them,’ they shrug. The only positive praise which is really coveted by children is that which comes from the peer group, especially the opposite sex when they get to that age. So what chance does a doll have?
Spontaneous loving praise is great, we all love a bit of that, but praise ‘to build self-esteem’ just doesn’t work.
I’m speaking as someone who is slightly bi-polar, who has a child who I once thought may be bi-polar too, so I know the worry that can cause for parents (slight understatement there), and I do hope they don’t all go rushing to get their kids diagnosed too quickly. With my own child, I knew enough by then to back off and allow him his down times, and I knew the real struggle was with myself, in trying not to over-identify (which I did! I did!), thus adding the pressure of my anxiety to the feelings that already overwhelmed him. I remember only once giving him some advice, which was about the positive benefits of exercise for the brain: ‘But it’s the last thing you feel motivated to do when you’re feeling down,’ I added cheerily.
I know that when I was young I never let on to my parents when I was feeling depressed because I absolutely didn’t want their concern on top of everything else, and I certainly didn’t want their reassurance that I was brilliant, I would have just felt that they didn’t understand.
I know it’s only a study of one, but my son is twenty now, and he’s fine, no signs of a depressive personality at all. I am fine too, and would not change the insights and growth that have come through those black times throughout my life.
Whenever I felt depressed and my children noticed, I would shrug ‘Yup. Feeling a bit down’ in a What of it? kind of way, because for me it’s a part of life and nothing to be afraid of. Kids learn a lot more from what you do, not what you try to teach them, and it is our lack of fear which helps them to be unafraid of those feelings themselves.
We pathologise everything about children these days, and whilst it’s great that mental ‘illness’ is losing its stigma, I’m concerned that we take symptoms which would be indicative of a real problem in adults and make the same diagnosis when it’s a child. Is a child depressed or just experiencing the normal ups and downs of life? Children can be very odd in a myriad of individual ways as they grow up and learn stuff, and it does not necessarily correlate to what they become as their mature selves. There is a danger in finding evidence for adult disorders in young children, a risk of setting in stone precisely what you are trying to ‘cure.’
My advice to parents who worry ‘Is my child depressed?’ would be to first un-scare yourself, and if you’d like to get another view of depression, read this brilliant book by Thomas Moore: Dark Nights Of The Soul: A guide to finding your way through life’s ordeals. Be honest about your own down times, as a part of life. Watch a lot of comedy shows together. And stay away from the talking dolls.