Q. I’m concerned because I am a single parent raising my son in a poor neighborhood. I’m really concerned around the holidays because I can’t buy him the gifts he wants. I’ve been told that childhood poverty can have an impact on his functioning in adulthood. Is this true?
A. Research published this year in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Science” found that childhood poverty can have an impact on brain function and emotional control into adulthood. These findings support earlier research conducted at the University of Illinois, Cornell, and the University of Michigan. These studies indicate that there is a relationship between adult behavioral problems and poverty; it does not mean that all people who are raised in poverty will have difficulties in adulthood.
The studies found that many children who were living in poverty at age 9 had greater activity in the amygdala, the emotional part of the brain, and less activity in the prefrontal cortex, the self-regulatory part of the brain at the age of 24. These parts of the brain are important in how one learns to understand threating situations and manages emotional reaction to those events. The inability to regulate emotions often leads to anxiety, depression, and an increase in aggressive behaviors.
Poverty does not cause self-regulation problems, but the conditions caused by poverty bring about difficulties. Poor children are more likely to be exposed to violence, family turmoil, sub-standard housing, crowded living conditions, and low parental involvement. These are the causes.
As the income disparity in America continues to rise, the problems caused by poverty will only worsen. Currently, the top 1 percent of Americans owns 40 percent of the nation’s wealth while the bottom 80 percent has only a total of 7 percent.
As a mother, there are several ways you can help your child not fall prey to the problems caused by poverty. Let your son know that you love him every day. Explain to him early on that you cannot afford to buy some of the things he wants, but you can spend time with him. Find ways to make your time together more important than getting a new video game. Never let violence enter your home. If you have a partner, never let your son see you having an altercation.
You should be a strict monitor of his behavior at all time. Know when he has homework and make him do it. Know where he is and when he will be home. Know what he is watching on television or viewing on the Internet. Education, self-regulation and the ability to delay gratification are the best tools in eliminating poverty.
Other people in the community can also help. Become a volunteer for an organization that supports opportunities for young people. Communities need to help each other. Poverty cannot be conquered by us on a national level, but we can make a dent in helping each other on a local level.
Q. I take care of my 10-year-old grandson. I think he is depressed, but I can’t get my daughter to be concerned. She thinks I’m over-reacting. I think she is avoiding a serious issue. Could you tell me some of the signs of childhood depression?
A. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, childhood depression is defined as “persistent thoughts and behaviors that interfere with a child’s ability to function.” Just because your grandson feels sad doesn’t mean that he’s depressed. He may be having difficulty with a friend, teacher or his school work. Ask about those first before you assume he has a more serious problem.
If your grandson has lost interest in school, friends, and activities, then he should have a psychological evaluation. Other signs that are indicative of depression are frequent crying, low energy, social isolation, low self-esteem, increased irritability, complaining of physical symptoms, poor concentration and changes in sleeping and eating patterns.
Should he discuss running away from home, not returning to school or exhibit any self-harming behavior, get professional help immediately. If you do not know a mental health professional, consult with your pediatrician for a referral. Although suicide is rare in children as young as 10, it does happen. Since you are concerned about his possible depression, be certain that he does not have access to guns.
Do not ignore serious warning signs. Childhood depression can interfere with his ability to thrive academically, emotionally and socially. Children can be treated effectively with psychotherapy and possibly medication.
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Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology from Yeshiva University in New York City. She currently teaches psychology at Southeast Arkansas College. If you have questions, e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org. They will not be answered personally, but could appear in a future column. There will be no identifying information and all e-mails remain confidential.