Promising Depression Treatment for Preschoolers

A new psychosocial approach shows promise in helping preschoolers with symptoms of depression function better and learn to regulate their emotions, according to an NIMH-funded study published online ahead of print October 31, 2011, in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.


Recent studies have shown that symptoms of clinical depression can arise in children as young as 3, and may in fact be an early manifestation of a childhood mood disorder. However, no studies have investigated the best way to treat the disorder among children so young. In addition, many established psychosocial treatments for depression in adults and older youth, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or interpersonal therapy, might not be a good fit to the developmental needs of very young children.

Yet research has shown that very early behavioral interventions can have a significant impact on the trajectory of conduct problems and neuro-developmental disorders like autism or some developmental delays. These findings suggest that very early intervention for a mood disorder could potentially head off depression later in life.

Toward that end, Joan Luby, M.D., of Washington University and colleagues conducted a preliminary pilot study comparing a novel form of psychotherapy called Parent Child Interaction Therapy -Emotion Development (PCIT-ED) with a psycho-educational program. PCIT includes hands-on components aimed at strengthening the parent-child relationship by teaching positive play techniques and coaching parents through the process, and training parents in methods for handling noncompliance and disruptive behavior. PCIT has already been shown to be effective for treating disruptive disorders among preschoolers. The Emotion Development component was designed to help the parent enhance the child’s ability to recognize emotions in self and others and more effectively regulate intense emotions.

The psycho-education program—the control condition—educated parents in small groups about child development. It emphasized emotional and social development but did not include individual coaching or practice sessions with the parents and their children.

The researchers randomly assigned 54 preschoolers (aged 3-7) and their parents to either PCIT-ED or to the psycho-education program. Each program was conducted over a 12-week period.

Results of the Study

After 12 weeks, depression symptoms among the preschoolers significantly declined in both groups. The group receiving PCIT-ED also showed improvements in levels of anxiety, hyperactivity, conduct problems, hostility and inattention, whereas the group receiving the psycho-education program showed improvements in separation anxiety. In addition, the PCIT-ED group showed improvements in a child’s executive functioning and his or her ability to recognize and regulate emotions, compared to the control condition. The PCIT-ED group also reported reduced parenting stress and decreases in maternal depression, whereas the psycho-education group did not.


The results indicate that PCIT-ED is acceptable to families and may be beneficial. The researchers conclude that a full-scale randomized controlled trial is warranted.

What’s Next

While intriguing, the findings are preliminary only and should be interpreted with caution until further research can be conducted.


Luby J, Lenze S and Tillman R. A novel early intervention for preschool depression: findings from a pilot randomized controlled trial. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Online ahead of print Oct. 31, 2011.

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