A father tells me that he tries to give his son, age 5 and an only child, everything he wants because he wants his son to be happy. But he’s not. He’s petulant, moody, often sullen and is having problems getting along with other children. Furthermore, he doesn’t seem to appreciate anything his parents do for him. He’s very demanding but not at all thankful for the riches that have been bestowed on him. Oh, and one more thing: he generally ignores his parents when they speak to him.
The father wants to know if I think his son is depressed. Is he suffering from a chemical imbalance of some sort? A grandparent has suffered from depression for much of her life. So has an aunt.
Two things: First, the term “chemical imbalance” is a theory, nothing more. Furthermore, it’s a theory that is impossible to verify. As a leading psychiatrist has admitted, the term is nothing more than a “useful metaphor.” Second, although it’s a generally accepted idea, no one has ever proven that depression or any other psychiatric disorder is inherited. The fact that certain problems seem to “run” in families does not prove inheritance.
So, the father wants to know, am I willing to speculate on what might be going on with his son?
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Yes, but I’m speculating only. I propose that the boy may be suffering the predictable ill effects of being overindulged and the near-constant center of attention in the family. It’s the very rare overindulged person who is truly happy. Typically, overindulgence eventually creates an addiction. As such, it becomes a bland substitute for valid personal contentment. When the point of diminishing returns is passed (and it’s passed fairly early on), the receiving of things begins to generate nothing but want for more things.
That may go a long way toward explaining why the mental health of children in the 1950s was significantly better than the mental health of today’s kids. Since the 1950s, as indulgence has become the parenting norm, the rates of child and teen depression have skyrocketed. As one example, I clearly remember every toy I possessed on Dec. 26, 1952. It’s not mentally strenuous, even for a 67-year-old, to remember five things.
And then there’s the matter of being the center of attention in one’s family. People raised in the 1950s have difficulty relating to that new parenting norm because our parents were the center of our attention, not the other way around. It must be a terrible burden to be in the family spotlight when you’re 5 years old. How in the world does a child ever live up to that state of affairs? As the research clearly shows, high self-esteem comes at a steep price, one that includes increased vulnerability to depression.
One develops sturdy coping skills by being required to cope, by coming to grips with Mick Jagger’s Theorem: You can’t always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.
The most character-building two-letter word: no. That’s why I call it vitamin N.