Clinical depression is a debilitating disease. It significantly affects a person’s internal life, ability to work and accomplish things, and relationship with loved ones and friends. When a person is depressed, his or her whole world is affected.
How Does Parental Depression Affect Children?
Parents who are depressed have a hard enough time coping with their emotional pain – it can be overwhelming to also have to worry about the feelings of spouse and children. The tendency is to hope that at least the kids don’t notice their parent’s emotional distress – the hope provides some relief and comfort. Unfortunately, scientific research does not substantiate the hope; it turns out that it’s almost impossible to hide a parent’s depression from children. Studies show that even infants can tell if their mother is depressed; infants with depressed mothers tend to display more symptoms of insecure attachment than infants whose mothers have no depression. Some get more anxious than other infants their age when separated from mothers, while some show signs of unusual indifference to separation. In either case, they relate differently to their depressed parent, indicating that they are sensitive to the mother’s mood and affect.
If infants can sense depression in their parents, imagine how much more easily the condition is recognized by children and teenagers. While it is tempting to believe that older kids are too busy with their own lives to really notice what’s going on with parents, nothing can be farther from the truth. In fact, children are sensitive to all the emotions and feelings happening in the household— whether spoken or unspoken. They may not always talk about what they experience, however. In fact, sometimes the only way a parent can tell that the child has noticed that something is wrong is through the youngster’s misbehavior. Misbehavior – often referred to as “acting out” – can be a child’s way of asking for help. He or she may not be able to articulate the source of the problem, but when invited to sit down and talk about what’s going on, may suddenly blurt out a pile of fears, concerns, worries and upsets. A depressed parent and/or his or her spouse, can help children understand what is going on and thereby help prevent pain and confusion from building up and spilling over into behavior problems (see strategies below).
Being proactive in reaching out to children can help reduce the chances that the children will suffer depression themselves. Although there are biological factors that predispose one to depression, these are open to influence by environmental factors: in other words, parents can make a difference. A study released by Beardslee and colleagues, found that a child whose parent has a mood disorder, is about 40% more likely than other children to develop major depression before they turn 20 years old. There are different possible reasons for this: vulnerability to depression is likely passed on through the genes; it may be that a depressed parent is unable to give as much attention to the emotional needs of his or her children, increasing the chances that their emotional health may be compromised; it may also be possible that the children lack a model of good emotional health (particularly if growing up in a single-parent home with a depressed parent or if living with more than one parent with a mental health issue). Whatever the reason, ensuring that the children are educated about depression and are receiving appropriate intervention (see below) can help them be more resilient.
Seek the Best Possible Care
An accurate diagnosis and effective treatment plan can help alleviate the symptoms of depression and speed recovery. The earlier one seeks treatment, the better. However, any time is a good time for assessment and professional support. Too many people try to tough it out on their own, failing to realize that there are some very good treatments for depression nowadays. There are both medical and alternative treatments, medications and therapies. Most people who experience depression can be helped back to a life of joy and productivity once they’ve received the help they need. Seek that help for your sake AND the sake of your children!
Explain the Situation
It’s best to explain to your children what is happening, rather than leave things up to their imagination. When children don’t have the facts, they can concoct the strangest explanations for events. For instance, they may think that a depressed parent who is in bed a lot of the time is lazy, or is dying or doesn’t love them enough to get up. Or, they may think that it’s THEIR fault that Mom or Dad isn’t happy a lot of the time. They may feel that they are bad and that is why Daddy is always irritable or Mommy is always crying. As you can see, their explanations tend to be destructive and unhealthy. Just tell them the truth: Mommy or Daddy has an illness that makes them feel (list symptoms such as tired, nervous, grumpy, sad, etc.). Tell them that the doctor is helping and hopefully Mommy or Daddy will feel better soon.
There is no need to try to pretend that everything is fine and in fact, doing so might cause confusion for the kids. Acting super-happy one minute and dissolving into tears the next may cause the children to feel that they’re living in an unstable environment! Nor should the healthy spouse work too hard to overcompensate for the depressed partner. Being too happy is also unreal and therefore destabilizing to kids. Everyone should just be what they normally are while being aware of their need to be as respectful, loving and attentive to the kids as possible. Not all depression is the same; some people can actually carry on with their careers while being depressed while others are housebound. Those who can get dressed and take care of the kids should continue to do so as much as possible. Those who are too ill to do this are simply too ill to do this and others must take over.
There is one caveat, however: showing children strong negative emotions or destructive behavior can have devastating effects. For instance, children will inevitably be overwhelmed by watching a parent harm herself, fly into out-of-control rages or engage in screaming or crying spells. Finding a parent in the midst of a suicide attempt is one of the most traumatizing experiences a child can ever have – second only to discovering a successful suicide. However, any form of parental breakdown will usually scare – even traumatize – young children who can’t yet fully grasp the nature of the illness. If you feel that you are on the verge of a breakdown, ask someone to take you somewhere private, or somewhere that you can rest for awhile or, if appropriate, to an emergency medical center.
Help Your Children Understand What is Happening
Keep the doors of communication open. You may be able to find some children’s books on depression or parents with depression – reading them to your young kids can be helpful and spark questions and dialogue. Ask your local librarian for help. Alternatively, search out the internet for resources. Allow kids to express their frustration and anger – greet their feelings with Emotional Coaching (see “Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice” for details). That is, accept their feelings without trying to change them. When a child angrily shouts to a depressed parent, “YOU’RE ALWAYS TOO TIRED. YOU NEVER TAKE US ANYWHERE!” the parent can actually respond with Emotional Coaching: “I know you’re upset. You have a right to be. It’s frustrating and maddening that I can’t take you on outings like everyone else. It doesn’t feel fair. Why should you have to have a mother who suffers from depression? Why can’t we be like all your friends?” Interestingly, when the parent responds with acceptance, understanding, compassion and validation, the child almost always changes his mind – if not right in the moment, then perhaps a few minutes or hours later. “I’m sorry Mom. I know it’s not your fault. I just feel sad about not being able to go out with you.”
Kids Need to be Kids
Although children can certainly cheer their parents up, they cannot handle the responsibility of making parents happy. Children who need to be too quiet, too “good” or too anything so that their parents won’t be too stressed, too challenged or too depressed, inevitably suffer. Kids need to be kids. It’s their turn to be looked after. Although they will certainly be willing to try, there is no way they can look after their adult parents. If your illness renders you vulnerable, weak and/or needy, turn to other sources of support besides your kids. Don’t share too many thoughts or feelings with them; use family, friends and therapists for that. You may not always have the energy you need to be “present” for your kids – that’s just part of the illness. If possible, see that others can step in to provide much needed attention and positive feedback. Your spouse, your parents or siblings, your friends and neighbors as well as the children’s teachers, coaches, babysitters and other helpers may all be able to step up to the plate. Ask for them for their help. Taking the time you need to fully recover is the best thing you can do for your kids. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle afterward in order to prevent relapse is equally important. Take good care of yourself because your kids are dependent on your well-being.
Provide Professional Support
When possible, help your children by providing professional counseling for them. Although it’s not your fault at all, your (or your spouse’s) depression presents a developmental challenge for your kids. Counseling can help children grow and thrive through this challenge. There may be children’s groups for family members of depressed people in your area. Check with your doctor. Also, see if there are other friends, neighbors, relatives or volunteers who might be able to take the kids out or give them extra time and attention inside the house. This helps them get their own needs met when u are in stages of deep recovery.