Thursday, November 09, 2006

So how can any child of four need happy pills?

A marvelous opinion piece, as seen in the Daily Mail. A solution so simple, it's child's play ...

Now if you're all sitting comfortably, let me tell you a story about little N Mollie Murphy. You see, four-year-old Mollie is feeling a bit sad.

She didn't get into the same school as her old friends from nursery and she misses them. She's struggling to make new friends and sometimes wets the bed.

Her little round face, surrounded by wispy blonde hair, should be as cheerful as the smiley badge embroidered next to the two owls on her school sweatshirt. Instead, Mollie looks close to tears.

So what should Mollie's mother do? In desperation, she decides to visit her local doctor for advice and - hey presto! - this is where the story takes a sinister turn.

The GP diagnoses that Mollie is suffering from stress and depression, and suggests she should be packed off to see a child psychiatrist.

Oh, and for good measure, her mother is advised that a course of anti-depressants might be in order - which would surely make Mollie the youngest of the 40,000 children and adolescents we put on these drugs every year.

If, at this point, you find yourself wondering what sort of society we have become when doctors are prescribing 'happy pills' to four-year-olds, you would not be alone.

When told of her daughter's 'depression' Mollie's mother's first response was: "How can a little girl suffer from that?" It's a good question.

For whether you call Mollie depressed or just sad, the answer to her problems is on that school badge, not on a medical prescription.

She needs some owl-like wisdom from her parents and lots of smiley faces from her school mates.

Instead, she's in danger of being taught a very dangerous lesson, before she can even read or write. It's a lesson that goes like this: Got a problem? Pop a pill. Finding life hard? Blame someone else.

Treating a little child with anti-depressants because she didn't get into the school she and her parents wanted is not just ridiculous and unnecessary, it is the most shocking example yet of a culture of dependency in which life's setbacks are not simply challenges to be confronted and overcome, but are medical conditions to be diagnosed and treated by 'professionals'.

I may not be a doctor, but this I can be sure of: little Mollie will get over her temporary sadness far faster without medical intervention. She needs a dose of good parenting and common sense, not Valium.

This isn't just conjecture, it's based on personal experience.

When my husband and I took our eight-year-old daughter out of her village school because we had moved seven miles away, she thought her world had fallen apart. She cried almost every night for the first term in her new school.

I felt enormously guilty; I wavered; I considered spending the next three years driving her to and from her old school, possibly with her younger brother and sister, which could have made it seven years in all - which was absurd considering we had two excellent primary schools within an eight-minute walk of our house.

"She will get over it," said everyone from her grandparents to my best friend. It was hard to believe them, because I felt I had never done such a cruel thing in my life.

"Stick it for a term and I'll buy you some furry-topped boots,"

I begged her.

"I don't even like furry-topped boots," she sobbed untruthfully.

If there's such a thing as a gradual miracle, that's what happened. By Christmas, Rosie had found a friend at her new school.

By the next school year, she had three really close friends whom she still sees more than three years after they all went to different secondary schools.

She even forgot to ask for boots, with or without furry tops. In other words, she got over it. So will Mollie - if her parents help.

Victoria Anderson and her partner David Murphy were no doubt disappointed that Mollie did not get into East Herrington Primary School in Sunderland, but for her sake they have to do what thousands of parents do every year.

They have to swallow the disappointment and say nice things about the school and the teachers Mollie did get.

If parents bad-mouth teachers and schools in front of their children, the children feel worried and unsettled.

They may even, as Miss Anderson says Mollie does, make themselves sick because they feel torn between home and school.

Mollie's mother needs to put her annoyance about the local author-ity's school placement system behind her.

A bit of enthusiasm about the books and paintings her daughter brings home and about the decorations on the classroom walls will do wonders.

Mollie will begin to behave like a happy four-year-old girl - skipping and gossiping with her friends in the playground and telling off the boys in the classroom - only if she feels allowed to by her parents.

Right now, she feels her school is just a big problem for everyone, so she's sad and she wets the bed. She isn't being given a chance to forget the disappointment and her old, loved nursery school.

Four-year-olds readily forget and move on if they are allowed to. But being taken to the doctor has confirmed to Mollie that there is a serious problem.

Worse still, it's a problem she and her family seem unable solve on their own, and at her age that's frightening.

She'll now be waiting for the next symptom, and every time she has a nervous tummy, she'll play up to it, insisting she's too unwell go to school.

Lots of children take a while to settle into a new school. My son used to say a grave goodbye at the door of the reception class and go and stand by the end of the bookcase, as far away as possible from the other children who were sitting on the carpet. He was pretending not to be there.

What can we do?' I asked the teacher after a few weeks. Funnily enough, she didn't prescribe Valium or recommend a toddler shrink.

"It's OK," she replied calmly. "He's moving along the front of the bookcase a bit more every day. He'll soon be with us."

And sure enough, by half-term there he was, listening to a story while sitting on the carpet with all the others.

I wonder what Mollie's teacher thinks? Whatever the teacher is doing to encourage her to play with the other children, it will count for nothing if all Mollie gets at home is bad vibes about school.

No, instead of resorting to the GP or trying to force the local authority to reverse its decision about which school Mollie can attend, her mum must concentrate on helping her to make new friends.

Of course, that may not be such an easy cure. In our work-dominated society, I know it can be a struggle for mothers of very young children to be around at 3.30pm to pick up their children and thus meet other mums outside the playground.

But it's a good network to get into if you can, and one Victoria Anderson must join for Mollie's sake.

Making Mollie happy will not take a prescription pad and a good psychiatrist, it will simply take a bit of time and thought from her parents.

It means taking responsibility and getting to know a few people. It means being grown-up enough to hold your tongue about your grievances and to put your child first, with a few cheerful words about her new school.

No doubt somewhere in Mollie's mum's mind, it seemed easier to dump the whole thing on the archetypal father figure, the harassed local doctor, and get him to lean on the local education authority. But the LEA is quite rightly refusing to be leaned on and says it will not be moving her.

Mollie is four. She has two parents, a brother and a sister. The only prescription she needs is new friends to play with.

The solution is so obvious, it's child's play.

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