Published On: September 25, 2018
Reviewed On: September 25, 2018
Updated On: October 27, 2023
If you have children, you know raising kids presents challenges on your best days. Parents with mental illness, however, have it even harder.
In particular, parental depression can wreak havoc on a child’s psyche. What’s worse, when children develop problems related to parental depression, the added stress can make that parent’s depression worse. Thus, parental depression can turn into a long-lasting cycle of negative outcomes for the entire family.
In my own practice as a therapist who works with children and families, I find when parents struggle with depression, parenting gets harder for them. Studies agree. In fact, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded, “Parental depression is among the most consistent and well-replicated risk factors for childhood anxiety and disruptive behavior disorders and for major depressive disorder.”
Not only do children with depressed parents likely have an increased genetic risk for mental illness themselves, but the parent’s depressive symptoms create additional environmental stress for the child.
For example, if you struggle with depression, you know how hard it can be to maintain your performance at work, your duties at home, and your relationships with friends and family. If depression causes additional stressors such as marital problems or job loss, children also suffer.
When children grow up in stressful or uncertain environments, they can develop their own behavioral or emotional problems. Defiance, anxiety, or depression are common outcomes. In fact, the majority of children I see in my practice experience family stressors. We must first address issues with their parents before we can expect the child’s behavior to improve.
Depression is a complex mental illness, and everyone’s experience and challenges with it differ slightly. Here are some ways a parent’s depression affects a child or family, to help recognize where changes can be made.
When parents struggle with the low energy, lack of joy, and the social withdrawal depression causes, they can’t engage fully with their children. They may even have trouble mustering energy to take care of a child’s basic needs, so children learn to rely on themselves when parents are too hard to reach.
According to a recent study in the journal European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, children appear to learn different coping mechanisms from mothers and fathers, so depression in either parent can affect how the child handles stress. The authors suggest mothers tend to be a calming influence, providing support when the child is upset. On the other hand, fathers tend to encourage more assertive or active coping strategies.
Therefore, while a child’s coping deficits may vary depending on which parent suffers depression, the impact on the child remains.
Parents who suffer from depression usually know their symptoms affect their parenting, but may find it difficult to make changes they know their children need. In addition, the negative thought patterns and rumination that go along with depression may make parents assume their parenting is worse than it really is.
These factors set up a cycle of guilt and self-criticism that further shakes a parent’s confidence in his or her abilities. In fact, a study in the Maternal and Child Health Journal found that feeling more effective as a parent may decrease the parent’s depressive symptoms.
In my experience, parents who believe they caused their children’s problems have trouble setting appropriate limits with common childhood behaviors (think tantrum-ing toddler or curfew-violating teen).
In addition, parents who doubt their abilities may be more anxious, tending to reinforce anxiety in their children rather than confidently facing typical challenges such as separation anxiety. Because they have gotten into ineffective patterns and don’t know what else to do, parents in these situations often give in to misbehavior or inadvertently encourage a child’s distress.
Parenting with depression doesn’t have to be a permanent or hopeless scenario. There are plenty of ways to find help or treatment for depression, and also provide solutions for your child to help cope with a parent working through mental health challenges.
In my practice, I find parents with depression benefit from specific guidance on how to parent effectively, not just how to manage their own symptoms. A professional can help you understand typical childhood behavior, how your unique symptoms might affect that behavior, and how to develop a parenting style that works best for you.
A neutral, trained adult who understands the child’s experience can alleviate much of the distress children experience when a parent has a mental illness. A therapist can teach your child about depression and how to cope effectively when it interferes with your relationship.
As an added bonus, this therapy can improve the child’s behavioral and emotional problems, breaking negative cycles that make parental depression worse.
Sometimes living with depression means being too overwhelmed to appreciate the moment. Children, however, live in the moment all the time. In addition, they appreciate even the smallest doses of undivided attention. While you get professional help for yourself and your child, look for small joys you can share together. A 10-minute board game, a favorite snack, or a quick walk outside can make a world of difference for you both.
If you’re struggling with depression, day-to-day living can be overwhelming, especially if you’re also responsible for the welfare of children. Significant depressive symptoms need appropriate treatment. Psychotherapy offers a wealth of proven benefits; in addition, medication management can help some individuals with depression achieve better symptom control.
By seeking help, you’ll find that parenting can become easier with time and healing, and your family — including your child (or children) — will benefit from a healthier, more positive environment.
Tamara L. Stevens, MA, LPA, HSP-PA is a Licensed Psychological Associate with a Master’s degree in clinical psychology. She has served children and adults for over twenty years, specializing in ADHD, autism, learning disorders, and psychological testing. She owns a private psychology practice and enjoys freelance writing about mental health.