The BBC television series presented by the overweening Professor
Robert Winston, Child of Our Time, is uneven and often
irritating, yet almost every programme reveals some astonishing new
truth about children which nails old assumptions and makes you
question modern practices and beliefs which have embedded
themselves in our culture.
In a recent programme a four-year-old boy was filmed as he went
about his business. Although only little, he came across as a rogue
– for ever upsetting all the other children he interacted with,
destroying things, driving his not very confident mother to
distraction. He didn’t appear to have any social skills at all and
seemed to want to be ostracised and rejected by his peer group and
the adults in his life.
Within minutes I found myself categorising this tiny boy as
“abnormal” and “delinquent” and getting cross that he was spoiling
things for the other children.
I then went on to unfair judgements about the mother: what had she
done to create such a monster? It could happen to any one of us,
only some of us perhaps have the resources to seek help faster. At
exactly the point when you could imagine some doctors recommending
strong drugs to control the behaviour of this boy, a possible
“solution” was tried. The child was given fish oil daily for three
months. The transformation this produced in his behaviour was truly
miraculous. He stopped being frantic, looked into the faces of
children and adults, related to them, and learned to share.
Other projects for troubled young people show that great
improvements can be achieved if they are given better food.
One in 12 children in Britain are thought to be depressed or
antisocial, and there has been a sharp rise in the use of drug
therapy for these problems. Between one-quarter and one-third of
boys in inner cities are declared delinquent by teachers, police
officers or social workers. At some point, says psychologist James
Oliver, about half of those thus categorised go on to be convicted
of a crime in adolescence. There is evidence that chronically
aggressive children suffer from low levels of serotonin and that
depressed children between the ages of eight and 17 can be
successfully treated with antidepressants, among them Prozac.
But a new safety review by the Medicines and Healthcare Products
Regulatory Agency warns that risks outweigh the benefits when it
comes to the use of antidepressants for under 18-year-olds. Some
30-40,000 children and teenagers are prescribed SSRIs (selective
serotonin reuptake inhibitors) in the UK. But none of these drugs
were ever licensed for young people.
It is a timely warning and one which should make us question the
extent to which dietary and psychological interventions are being
neglected by parents and professionals who, probably as a result of
extreme frustration, seek out the nearest and fastest drugs which
may help to subdue the hyperactive child or lighten the deep misery
of a depressed young person. With so much social disintegration
within families, communities and neighbourhoods, with vast numbers
of children nutritionally deprived, perhaps it is just easier for
society to turn to chemical remedies.
How many parents – particularly those from more deprived
backgrounds who have so much else to cope with – are given
information about the possible benefits of fish oil or the effects
of additives on their children? In fact turning to drugs for
children has become frighteningly common in all homes and one
reason is that so many of us are in a rush. When my 26-year-old son
was small and had a headache or sore throat, my mother and I would
use massage and balms, salt water gargles and turmeric milk to make
him better. Hardly ever was he given paracetemol. But my daughter,
10, has Calpol, cough syrups, decongestants and much else because I
no longer have the time to do what I used to do for my son. Of
course this will be having a detrimental effect on her.
How much worse, though, for children who are put on drugs for
behavioural problems for extended periods. Just what will happen to
these young people as they grow up? How can it be right that, in
such a rich country, so many children are being prescribed
chemicals when what they really need could be healing food or
effective psychotherapy? Three months of fish oil is what it took
to turn around one beastly boy. But fish oil isn’t as profitable
for drug companies as Prozac, is it?
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a journalist and