How a Mom's Depression Affects Her Kids

by Pat Blackwell, Ph.D. Parental depression can have an insidious impact on the psychology of a child. Even infants are at risk of suffering negative consequences of their mother’s sadness. The short-lived post-partum depression does not tend to be detrimental because it usually passes and mothers return to their normal affective state. But clinical depression, which is more severe and persistent, is different. Children of depressed parents suffer self blame, low self esteem, anxiety and sadness themselves. Parental depression that goes untreated can affect the entire family.

Kids take their parent’s depression personally

The effects of parental depression on children have many layers. Single parents (usually mothers) may sink so deep into depression that they cannot meet the basic needs of their children. Even milder depression robs parents of their ability to respond to their children’s emotional needs; sad parents look back at their child with a flat expression rather than a look of understanding and empathy. They cannot comfort themselves, so they struggle with nurturing their child. Today depression is considered the “common cold of mental illness,” probably because about 25% of adults will experience a depressive episode in their lifetime (not to be confused with the blues, which everyone experiences).

How to help both the depressed parent and her child

Depressive episodes that last several weeks should be addressed proactively by parents. The first step is seeking consultation with a physician, psychologist or clinical social worker. The most effective treatment is a combination of medication and cognitive behavioral therapy. (However not everyone needs medication or will not need to be on medication indefinitely). In addition to clinical treatment, parents are advised to talk to their children about their depression or chronic stress. Very young children will be helped with a home-made book that explains the depression in a simple way and relieves the child of blame for the problem. Children of all ages will need to know that their parent is getting treatment and is trying to get better. If the depression is severe, single parents need help to care for their children until the depression is under control.   The good news is that depression is now regarded as a medical problem that can be treated. All people deserve to be free from misery and to experience joy. However depressed parents must also realize that until they get treatment, their depression has a ripple effect and their sadness will impact all members of the family.

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