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A Surprising Risk Factor for Depression

Happy family with little girl

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The results are in, and they’re sobering: 100% of all people who suffer from depression were once children.

Yes, childhood is the #1 risk factor for depression. Having been a child accounts for more depression than job loss, divorce, prison time and the loss of a loved one combined.

Until now, depression — especially of the mild to moderate variety — was considered mysterious. It was often attributed to unexplained chemical imbalances in the brain.

We now know that, at least in the United States, having been a child is the Number One risk factor for depression.

Why might this be?

Head vs. Heart

Being a child — even a happy child — means getting repeated, emphatic lessons in how to deny your own emotions.

For example, well-meaning parents tell children to “stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about,” thus teaching children that difficult feelings can and should be controlled.

Here are a few other parental favorites that encourage the questioning and judgment of the heart by the head:

  • “Don’t be so upset; it’s not that big a deal”
  • “Just ignore her”
  • “Say you’re sorry”
  • “Big boys (or girls) don’t cry”
  • “But you like spaghetti!”

Parents mean well, but kids get the wrong idea.

Children believe that if their feelings are inappropriate, annoying, or wrong, it means they’re those things.  They can’t separate who they are from how they feel. Or even from what happens to them.

When you’re a kid, you think every bad, wrong thing that happens in your life is because of you.

And that’s depressing.

So you try really hard to do the right thing, which is to be happy and quiet. You try never to feel bad, because when you do, important others become exasperated, sad or uninterested.

Reversing the Effects of Childhood

Once kids become adults, misguided attempts to continue controlling their feelings — not just their behavior, which presumably IS under their control, but their emotions, which are not — can lead to a total breakdown in communication between head and heart.

The head says, “Don’t do that, do this.”

And the heart says, “I don’t want to.”

So then the head snaps, “Don’t you talk back to me!” or whatever it is the head learned to say when dealing with the heart.

And the heart goes silent.

This head/heart disconnect creates a sense of separation from the Self — a painful state that leads almost inevitably to — say it with me — depression.

It’s  interesting to note that those who have never been children are at negligible risk.

Animals (who start life as cubs, tadpoles, fawns, calves — everything but children), plants of all descriptions, minerals and gases reportedly do not experience depression.

Compensatory efforts to treat children like animals, plants, minerals and gases have failed in laboratory experiments.

It seems that childhood itself remains a risk factor, no matter how children are raised, because of their insistence on taking things personally.

While we can’t do away with childhood completely, research suggests that depressed adults can gain some relief by re-parenting themselves in several important ways:

Research continues. Volunteers are currently being recruited. Please leave a comment if you’d like to participate.

Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting and other resources, and offers assertiveness training and executive coaching for organizations. The author of "Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them" and the "Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children," Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships. Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called "Constructive Wallowing."
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0 Responses to "A Surprising Risk Factor for Depression"

  • Cheryl Peddie
    July 27, 2013 - 11:35 am Reply

    Thank you for the sad and yet wonderfully hopeful (all at the same time) post Tina.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      July 27, 2013 - 12:31 pm Reply

      Thank you, Cheryl, for taking a moment to leave a note. I appreciate your readership.

  • deb
    August 2, 2013 - 9:50 am Reply

    The humor pulled me into a wonderfully thought through argument. Thank you.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      August 3, 2013 - 7:30 am Reply

      Thank you for taking the time to leave this nice comment, Deb.

  • Mary
    August 20, 2013 - 11:28 am Reply

    I love your no-nonsense approach to life, Tina! This article is empowering and inspiring to me. One more reason to love and nurture my best friend, “ME”. 🙂

    • Tina Gilbertson
      August 20, 2013 - 12:56 pm Reply

      Hey Mary, thank you for the thumbs-up. It means a great deal to me that you feel empowered and inspired by something on my blog. Give my warm regards to your best friend; you’re both welcome back here any time. 😉

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