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Binyamin L. Jolkovsky: Passing (it) On

Rabbi Yaakov Bleich: Questions Most Can't Answer

Julia Gorin: Confessions of a Refusenik Gone Secular

Ellen Small: Fireflies Light Up The Sky At Night

Dr. Jacob Mermelstein: Depressed Kids, Good Lives

Josh Pollack: A Divided Cyprus Mounts the World Stage

Nehama C. Nahmoud: The Jews of Yemen

Susan Rubin Weintrob: The Greening of American Jewry

Reader Response

December 10, 1997 / 11 Kislev, 5758

Depressed Kids, Good Lives

Dr. Jacob Mermelstein talks about "blue" kids, how they get that way, and how you can help.

ADULTS HAVE COME to "accept" periodic feelings of unhappiness that cannot be immediately explained. As a society, we've devised terms for those moods. "Feeling blue" is one example. We also jokingly say that the individual who is grumpy all of a sudden has gotten up on the "wrong side of the bed." And how often have we heard people explain away rude, anti-social behavior by saying: "Oh, I'm just not myself today"? Occasionally, these unusual moods -- and the behaviors they, in turn, trigger -- can last for an extended period of time. Should this be the case, professional help is needed. Yet, by and large, fluctuating moods are deemed by society as being perfectly "normal."

Regarding children, however, this is not the case. Childhood, according to conventional wisdom, is supposed to be the period of happiness in a child's life, a time of carefree abandon and freedom from obligations -- verily a "bed of roses." Indeed, so ingrained is this notion into our psyches, parents usually become angry or disappointed themselves when a child speaks of feelings of unhappiness or depression. Why? Because, at least in part, a child's unhappiness is said to reflect upon the adequacy of his parents. It brings into question a guardian's "goodness" in giving the child sufficient love. The result is that many will deny the fact that children, too, can be unhappy and suffer depressions. And that is wrong, if not dangerous.


As it so happens, children are prone to periods of sadness no less than adults. In fact, their lives are far from epitomizing bliss. There are several reasons why their suffering is far more intense and frequently more devastating. Unlike adults, children often cannot "understand" or verbalize their feelings. The option of "talking things out," in many cases simply doesn't exist. With their ego structure relatively weaker and less stable, mood swings in children usually occur much more frequently. And unless the child's unhappiness is relieved at a relatively young age, a habitual depressive disposition is likely to be established, a trait that in all likelihood will only become more intense in adulthood.

Only the fool would attempt to formulate a global theory of depression -- one that would explain satisfactorily its nature in every case. As is the case with most emotional disorders, each individual presents a unique condition in need of understanding the reason for the development and to formulate a plan of action to resolve the problem.

The extent genetics plays in depression is still unclear, though some authorities suspect that an individual's temperament and disposition are innate. Almost from birth, after all, a child's personality can be detected. Some infants cry and fuss and seem to be "unhappy." Others apparently have a "relaxed" disposition and seem to be content. Indeed, a child's intelligence, his body build and his nervous system, all of which are hereditary factors, are implicated.

Functionally, though, it is believed that the child's earliest environment, the first and second year of life, determine his basic outlook -- trusting optimism or fearful pessimism. What is involved, are qualitative relationships with his mother and other important people, the presence or absence of warmth, empathy and feelings over and above meeting his physical needs. This, to be sure, is a vast topic about which much has been written and which will have to be discussed at another time. In any case, unless parents have such instinctual warmth and insights, books or articles will be of little help.

A more productive avenue to explore is the period of childhood when much learning takes place, including attitudes and moods. It is, after all, the aggregate of feelings, attitudes and dispositions that form one's "personality."


Childhood development of a depressive disposition may be borne of simple imitative behavior or a failure in maintaining an "Economy of Happiness." We know, of course, that children learn more by imitating their role models than by "formal" lessons. They become individuals who are cruel, earnest or playful and so forth, primarily by observing their parents and by adopting their ways. This is so obvious, it's almost seems pointless to discuss. Yet, one would be amazed how many times parents, amid a counseling session, complain mostly of their child's shortcomings when they themselves are no less guilty.

In short, the unhappy home will produce unhappy children. Apathy, lack of involvement or zest are traits that are learned. To affect the child, one must first treat the parents.

Probably the most basic psychological need is a feeling of worth -- the possession of adequate self-esteem. It's this feeling that seems to come closest to the vague concept we call "happiness." It is also a total lack of self-esteem that can drive a man to total despair.

Hopefully, one's basic self-esteem is laid down in the early-years when there is an overabundance of love, when every little accomplishment is showered with praise, frustrations are at a minimum, and demands are few. This basic investment bears interest and thus a satisfactory "economy of happiness" becomes possible. However, with life being as it is, there are numerous "assaults" upon one's self-esteem. Parents become angry, friends may dislike him, or his ability is questioned --- a deficit comes about in his economics of happiness. Fortunately, in most cases there are just as many happier experiences that "balance the budget" and restore, if not improve, the state of this economy.

Supposing, however, these "assaults" are excessive, or restorative income of satisfactions are inadequate. The economy of happiness is now upset, a loss of self-esteem develops, and a depressive mood sets in.

Drugs and alcohol, food and entertainment -- or all of the things that supposedly make us happy, are at best temporary measures whose efficiency lasts only as long as they stimulate the nervous system, our palate or our senses. Our basic and more permanent sense of happiness and well-being reaches us through that general feeling of trust and optimism laid down during infancy and enriched through "income" from our environment.

This self-esteem varies among individuals, and depends upon many factors, the most important of which is one's sense of values and the fulfillment of his role in life. There are, moreover, roles that society imposes upon the adult, which he must fulfill, and where there is little criterion of success or failure. Fathers must earn a living and maintain a home, mothers, at the very least, must nurture their young and be a wife to their husband, and together, parents raise their children. Thus, even if there is little else, parents can derive satisfaction and a feeling of worth by fulfilling these roles -- and they become a ready source of "income" for maintaining their economy of happiness.

The child is not that fortunate. His task is to acquire an education. And there are ready-made devices to measure his success or failure. Like his parents, his role has been pre-ordained. But unlike them, his task is more clearly defined, it's measured, and it's constantly compared with the accomplishments of others.

What then of the child who can't succeed or ends up being the low man in his peer group? Must he be doomed to an irreparable loss of self-esteem -- or must he become the class clown in order to forcefully gain the satisfactions he doesn't enjoy at school?

Parents must learn not to confuse the means of a goal -- achievement and skill -- with the goal itself, "happiness." The worth of the child must be governed by his being -- not by what he's doing.


Dr. Jacob Mermelstein is a practicing psychologist, certified both in New York and New Jersey.

©1997, Jewish World Review