If a parent has clinical depression, then inevitably his or her children are going to be affected. The younger a child is when the parent becomes depressed, the greater the impact. Studies have shown that children of depressed parents have a higher risk of not only developing depression themselves, but additional problems with anxiety, academic performance, poor self-esteem, physical complaints, aggressive behavior, problems bonding and difficulty interacting with their peers.
A higher risk, however, doesn’t mean that these problems are inevitable. Although it’s difficult, adults with clinical depression can be good parents. Also affecting the outcome are factors such as how depressed the parent is, how frequently they are separated from the child (by hospitalizations, for instance), how long the depression lasts and what other adults are helping to care for the child. In general, the more quickly a depressed parent recovers, and the more honest he or she is with their offspring about the depression, the less likely it is that the kids will be adversely affected. Depression is also more likely to hit parents who have more than one child, have children under age three, are low income or minorities, are single parents or are the primary caregiver for their children.
While you can’t immunize your child from depression the way you would from the measles, there are many things that can be done to help kids understand and cope with a parent’s depression. If the depressed parent can continue to be supportive, or if the child can get emotional support from the other parent or another caring adult, they’re much more likely to handle the situation in a healthy manner.
Messages Kids Need to Hear
Each parent must decide how much information their child is old enough and mature enough to digest. No matter what the age, though, honesty is the best policy, and three points in particular should be made clear to each child.
- Depression can be treated. Clinical depression is an illness, not a permanent “bad mood.”
- It is not the child’s fault. Children commonly blame themselves for a parent’s illness or absence. Make sure they understand that they are not to blame. Even pre-schoolers can understand comments like “Mommy feels sad, like you did when your friend moved away. She is also really tired a lot, like you are when you’re really sleepy. It’s not your fault or her fault. She is going to the doctor now, and the doctor will help her get well.”
- You can’t fix it, and you are not responsible for taking care of me. Kids often want to “fix” the problem and may be frustrated when they can’t. Or, they may become clingy and determined to take care of the depressed parent. Some will even begin to mimic the depressed parent’s symptoms.
There are several other points that are also useful in helping children cope with a parent’s depression. Stress that:
– You are not alone. Remind each child that many adults care about him and are there if he wants to talk. It can be helpful to make a list together.
– You are loved. Even in the midst of depression, a parent can and should remind her children that they are loved, and that even if she has to be hospitalized for a time, that they will be left in good hands. Be specific – talk to the kids about their individual needs and who will be responsible for meeting them.
– Your feelings are okay. Let your kids know that whatever feelings they have about their parent’s depression (and subsequent behavior) are normal. Depending on the age of the child, it can be helpful to have him name his feelings and find outlets for handling them, such as physical activity, drawing or writing stories. It’s also important to encourage children to talk. If a child has a parent who’s depressed, he may feel that talking about his own feelings will make things even worse. Reassure him that this isn’t so.
To Help Your Kids, Help Yourself
If you are battling clinical depression, the single most important thing you can do for your children is to take care of yourself. You are one of the most, if not the most, important person in your child’s life, and if you take the appropriate steps to combat your depression the quicker you’ll recover – to everyone’s benefit.
If your doctor has recommended medication, take it consistently. If one type of antidepressant doesn’t work, be persistent in trying others until you get some relief. If you have appointments for counseling and other medical care, keep them, even if you don’t feel like it. Try to exercise (even a short walk is helpful) and eat a balanced diet, as both of these steps can significantly aid your battle against depression. Avoid using alcohol, nicotine and narcotics as a way of coping with your symptoms. They may provide relief in the short term, but in the long run they’ll only add to your problems, while providing a bad example for your children.
Finally, make time for some fun, relaxing outings — with and without children — to help boost your mood. Even if you don’t feel like going, force yourself. It’s a good reminder that there is a world beyond the “black veil” of depression.