Parents with depression often suffer in silence, but this common illness can affect their families as well. Here's how to seek treatment and help your children cope.

By Lori Miller Kase
Updated February 20, 2020
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About 1 out of 6 Americans will experience symptoms of depression at some point, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And if depression happens to affect a parent, their children and family might suffer as well.

Indeed, children with depressed parents are two to four times more likely to develop depression themselves before adulthood. Extensive research has also shown that a mother's depression (especially when untreated) can interfere with her child's social, emotional, and cognitive development

If you think you might be depressed, reading this article may be difficult, but you owe it to yourself and your children to get the help you need. "Depressed parents often worry that they've irrevocably damaged their children, but they haven't," says William Beardslee, M.D., a professor of child psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Out of the Darkened Room: Protecting the Child and Strengthening the Family When a Parent Is Depressed. "Our research has shown that kids are incredibly resilient and that there is a lot that parents can do to help their children be strong, healthy, and happy."

Why Some Parents Don’t Seek Treatment

People who've been depressed say that it's almost impossible to explain what it feels like. "You become unbearably miserable, lethargic, and incapable of any joy or enthusiasm," says Anne Sheffield, author of Sorrow's Web: Overcoming the Legacy of Maternal Depression

Depressed parents often hide their feelings because they're ashamed that they haven't bonded with their babies. They might also worry that their children could be taken away from them. Yet many people suffer in silence without getting the treatment they need—maybe because of the stigma attached to mental health, or else because parents are so focused on their families that they disregard their own well-being, says Peter Jensen, M.D., director of the Center for the Advancement of Children's Health at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, in New York City.

Even parents who recognize their symptoms often assume they're just stressed and will eventually snap out of it—or they try to tough it out on their own for fear of being considered weak or crazy. However, research has found that the longer your symptoms go untreated, the more likely you'll be to suffer from future episodes of depression. Getting treatment is as essential for depression as it is for diabetes, because moderate to severe depression rarely goes away on its own.

The Effects of Depression on Kids

It can be a tremendous challenge for depressed parents to provide the things that children need most: affection, patience, playfulness, and consistent limit-setting. Not surprisingly, clinically depressed parents are self-critical and indecisive, so that every choice—from what to make for dinner to how warmly to dress the baby—can seem overwhelming. 

The effects of depression differ depending on the child's age, needs, and challenges. But here’s what experts know.

Babies

Bonding is particularly difficult for those with postpartum depression (PPD), which affects one in nine new mothers. They're less likely to play with their babies, make eye contact, or speak in an engaging voice. As a result, babies can become anxious and fearful. "Infants may be withdrawn and whiny, and may stop reacting to people at all," says psychiatrist David Fassler, M.D., author of "Help Me, I'm Sad": Recognizing, Treating, and Preventing Childhood and Adolescent Depression. Recent research has also found that breastfed infants whose mothers have PPD for more than two months gain weight more slowly than babies whose moms aren't depressed.

Toddlers and Preschoolers

A young child's brain is shaped by the interactions he has with adults. It takes energy and ingenuity to care for a child this age, but depressed parents are more likely to feel drained, irritable, and easily frustrated. As a result, their children have trouble regulating their own moods, cooperating with requests, and mastering problem-solving skills, according to a large study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Three-year-olds with depressed mothers are also more likely to perform poorly on measures of language skills and school readiness than children with mothers who aren't depressed.

School-age Children

Kids this age are often forced to become mini adults, taking over such duties as caring for younger siblings or making meals, if parents are too depressed to function, Dr. Fassler says. "They may seem very mature on the surface but can actually be pretty vulnerable underneath." Children can suffer in school because depressed parents are less likely to motivate them academically or help them coordinate social plans. Depressed moms and dads tend to be more critical, and as a result, kids this age often have more negative images of themselves, according to research at UCLA. They're also more likely to have behavioral problems in school, because their parent avoids dealing with discipline at home.

How to Protect Children from Your Depression

"With the right support, depressed moms can still be excellent parents," Dr. Beardslee says. Here are essential steps to take.

Get professional help. The best thing you can do for your family is to seek treatment, whether it’s antidepressant medication, therapy, or both. Talk to your doctor or a mental health professional for more information.

Count on your spouse (and others). When the other parent is actively involved, it reduces the risk that a child will develop low self-esteem or have problems in school, says David J. Diamond, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in San Diego. For mothers with PPD, hiring a baby-sitter and other household help, if you're able, can be crucial.

Discuss it with your children. Children are often left out of any discussion of depression, and yet they're forced to live through all the disruptions caused by it, Dr. Beardslee points out. It's crucial that a child understands that he is not to blame. You might say, "I've been crying and yelling a lot, but it isn't your fault. It's because I have a sickness, but I'm getting treatment for it, and I'm going to get better." There's no need to use the word depression with a child younger than 7 or 8. With older children, you can compare depression to a medical illness they're more familiar with. Whatever your child's age, let him know he should feel free to ask questions.

Let kids stick to regular activities. When a child can continue her extracurricular activities and playdates, she'll feel as if she still has some control over her life. If necessary, ask friends or relatives to help with drop-offs or pickups. "As parents see that their kids can still have a normal childhood and a wonderful future, they regain their confidence," Dr. Beardslee says, "and it gives them hope for recovery."

Does My Kid Have Depression Too?

At least half of all depressed adults first had symptoms during childhood or adolescence, so parents need to be on the alert for symptoms in their kids too. The following are signs of both adult and childhood depression.

  • Prolonged sadness, lasting for more than two weeks
  • Frequent, easy tearfulness
  • Changes in sleep or appetite
  • Loss of energy
  • Inability to take pleasure in former interests
  • Social withdrawal
  • Increased irritability, agitation, worry, or anxiety
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

The following signs may also be present in your children. 

  • Frequent headaches or stomachaches
  • Chronic boredom or apathy
  • Chronic self-criticism
  • Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure
  • Talk of or efforts to run away from home

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Comments (1)

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December 3, 2018
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