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Clinically Depressed Four-Year-Old?
Q: My four-year-old daughter was just a baby when her father was killed. At least once a day, she says she misses her dad and cries. I know that she doesn't remember him; she's just missing having a dad. I have always been very open with her about what her dad was like and what happened to him.
Can a four-year-old be clinically depressed? She was such a happy child until about age two. She is no longer happy and has been mean to the other kids in her preschool. She's very belligerent and non-compliant with her aunts, her teacher, and myself. Is this normal four-year-old behavior? Is there such a thing as counseling for a four-year-old? I need to do something to help her with these "I don't have a daddy" upsets. Would you please help us?
A: Yes, kids as young as four years of age can be clinically depressed. The intensity and frequency of your daughter's sadness over not having a father would certainly suggest that she merits being seen by a children's therapist. There are therapists who specialize in the treatment of young children and depression. Ask your pediatrician for her recommendations and call the social services departments of the major pediatric centers and children's hospitals in your area. You might also inquire about parents' support groups for yourself.
You are correct that she would not have a memory of her father that is causing her to miss him if he died when she was nine months old. You say that you have been open with her, but have you told her how her father was killed? I wonder how she has processed your explanations of his death. As she became more socialized and saw that most other kids had fathers, her sadness and loneliness grew. While some non-compliance with adults and arguing with peers can be attributed to her age, you speak of her being mean. That concerns me because it's willful and hurtful. I think that she is overwhelmed with confusion and sadness, centered on her not having a daddy. This daily misery has gone on too long not to be addressed therapeutically. I know that you will find your little girl the psychological help that she needs. Her present condition is not going to magically disappear or necessarily get better with age. Her fixation on her father might also be obscuring other chronic emotional difficulties that she is unable to articulate. That's why a seasoned specialist needs to see her, because therapeutic work with a child this young is a complex task.
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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.