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Why over 100,000 Australian children are on antidepressant medication and what we can do about it.



Back to school




Early years educator



By Michael Hawton

27th February, 2019

By Michael Hawton, former teacher, psychologist (MAPS) and Parentshop founder.

The startling rise in the number of children on antidepressant medicines which has doubled in the last six years is likely to be related to a recent tendency to blame children’s brains for their behaviour rather than to figure out which environmental factors might be influencing a child’s mood or anxiousness.

Another similar tendency in seeing children’s behaviour as a ‘brain’ thing is reflected in the high usage rates of stimulants for treating Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Even Connors, who invented the well-used Connors’ screening test, is aghast at the high rates of medicines being used to treat ADHD-type behaviour.  In one American state, Missouri, over 30% of all boys are on stimulant medication - a rate which Connors says is 25% above the normal rate. So, to blame children’s brains for what is much more likely to be a multifactorial problem, is a worrying trend.

In his book on the over diagnosis of normal childhood behaviour, clinical psychologist, Enrico Gnaulati (2013) says:

It is not surprising that parents would seek to understand their child’s troubling or troublesome behaviour in terms of single, straight forward cause. Parents are typically distressed and confused by their child’s actions and desperate for a solution…..Medical explanations are particularly seductive for parents…However, if parents are to be truly effective in addressing the situation, they must take the time to scrutinise all of the of the bio-psycho-social puzzle that might explain their child’s behaviour.

According to a story in The Weekend Australian (23-24 February 2019) on the rise in prescriptions being handed out to treat childhood depression, GPs and paediatricians will tend to prescribe more medicines where there are fewer psychological services in the local area. University of Sydney’s, Dr Ian Hickie is quoted as saying that, “medicines go up where psychological services go down”.

So, this tells us something doesn’t it? It says that medicines are preferred where an apparent ‘non-medicine’ alternative is unavailable. Non-medicine alternatives include: talking therapies, parenting programmes and even online help lines.

Parents can do much to avoid the unnecessary use of medicines if they are taught to manage children’s anxiety or depressive thinking. This is not hard. And, from my own experience as a community-based psychologist, parents often need to be trained-up in what to say and when to intervene to effect changes in their child’s anxious behaviour.

Early signs of anxiety in children can be spotted when kids are as young as four or five and the results for these children is open to remedy from parents or educators. What’s very clear is that children can be taught resilience thinking skills. If parents are moderators of their children’s anxiety (see Stuart Shanker and Daniel Siegal for more information on this topic), then it is important that parents or carers learn what they can do: to know the ‘right’ thinking skill to use in stopping their kids from catastrophising, by setting limits around their children’s use of devices and by ensuring that children’s minds are well rested.

Our brand new workshop No Scaredy Cats – promoting antifragile thinking in children 4-12 - will be launched in July, 2019. You can see the curriculum and the certification process for becoming a No Scaredy Cats parent educator, as well as to send an EOI email: service@parentshop.com.au.

Below is a really good clip on what parents can say to children to help them be more resilient. Click the image below or click here.

About the author

Michael Hawton is the founder of Parentshop, providing education and resources for parents and industry professionals working with children. He has authored two books on child behaviour management: Talk Less Listen More and Engaging Adolescents.


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