Treatment for Depression in Toddlers and Young Children

Play Therapy and Art Therapy

Small children have limited verbal skills. This makes traditional psychotherapy an ineffective treatment for preschoolers. However, play therapy and art therapy are effective diagnostic and treatment methods for children of all ages. These therapies provide a gentle, self-guided way for children to communicate their experiences, emotions, and perceptions.

Through play and art, children reveal both the things in their lives that give them comfort, and the things that cause fear, anger, or anxiety. Therapists carefully observe children for clues to these negative experiences, and guide children in coping with their negative emotions. According to the non-profit organization Play Therapy International, 71% of child patients benefit from creative therapy.

Family Therapy and Parenting Education

Childhood depression often (but not always) stems from upheaval in the home. Children observe cues from adults and mimic how they interact with the world. If parents have poor coping skills or are under considerable stress, it is more likely that the small children in the home will be depressed.

In a report covered by OptingHealth com on vulnerable children, the National Center for Children in Poverty examines some of the risk factors that can create toxic stress in infants and toddlers, and impair their development (Knitzer and Lefkowitz). Examples of these toxic stressors might include:

  • Poverty
  • Physical or emotional abuse
  • Neglect
  • Domestic violence
  • Frequent moves
  • Poverty
  • Substance abuse in the home
  • Serious mental or physical illness of a household member
  • Absence of a parent through death, abandonment, incarceration, or divorce

While these can be factors in childhood depression, it should not be assumed that all children with depression come from unhealthy homes or that a child’s depression is caused by a failure on the part of the parents. However, for families experiencing these problems, therapy and parental education can help the entire family create a healthier home environment.

Treating Preschoolers with Antidepressants

There is a growing trend of treating toddlers with psychiatric medications developed for adults (Pyle). Whenever possible, this should be avoided. Psychiatric drugs are not generally tested in small children, nor approved for use in preschoolers by the FDA. The risks to young children and the impact these drugs can have on their development is unknown.

Despite these concerns, there are some instances where depression may be severe enough to warrant the use of drug therapy in a small child. If an antidepressant therapy is prescribed, the child should be carefully monitored. Mental health practioners should strive to use medication with the least likelihood of a serious side effect, at the lowest effective dose possible, and for the shortest amount of time possible.

Difficulty Finding Treatment for Suicidal or Violent Toddlers

There are virtually no residential treatment options or psychiatric hospitals designed to treat preschoolers who pose a significant risk to themselves or are violent towards others. If a small child is violent or suicidal, parents may struggle to find help. Services available to disturbed children vary widely by region and economic status. Parents should access all available resources to determine a course of action. The child’s pediatrician, public mental health service, and local social services offices can help parents determine the best way to get appropriate treatment for their child.