Growing up with a depressed parent: what are the risks and implications?

Research studies have shown that children raised by a depressed parent are at increased risk for academic and behavioral problems, as well as developing major depression themselves. These risks emanate from both a child’s genetic predisposition for developing depression, as well as their stressful environmental upbringing, says Michelle Sherman, PhD, a clinical associate professor of psychology at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City and the author of I’m Not Alone: A Teen’s Guide to Living with a Parent Who Has a Mental Illness. “Children often assume blame or responsibility for their parents when things go wrong, like in depression or divorce” adds Sherman.

Parents suffering from untreated major depression are typically pessimistic and uninterested in life and social activities; they also frequently have low energy, and irritability- all of which make even the basic tasks of parenthood overwhelming. When mothers are depressed, they tend to be less organized, less responsive, more likely to express negative emotions, and less likely to be engaged with their children compared to non-depressed mothers, says Kate Fogarty, assistant professor of youth development at the University of Florida. For many children, this experience forces them to learn to care for themselves prematurely, and may place them inappropriately in the role of parental caretaker. Other children are less capable, and develop dysfunctional patterns of behavior and emotional disturbance as a result of ongoing parental neglect.

A study of 244 formerly depressed adolescents revealed that those whose mothers had a history of major depression were more likely to experience a recurrence of depression between the ages of 19 and 24, and had more frequent and severe depressive episodes. Depressed mothers had more of an impact on the adolescents’ mental health than depressed fathers, according to this 2005 study by researchers at the Oregon Research Institute in Eugene, Ore., although the sons of depressed fathers were found to be more likely to consider and attempt suicide. The effects of having a father with depression has not been studied to the extent of depressed mothers, says Fogarty, but she suspects that the effect would be similar for any primary caretaker. “If this was the father and he was depressed, I would suspect there would be similar results. Researchers look at maternal depression mainly because mothers are traditionally the primary caretaker, but that’s changing” she adds.

How to support children with a depressed parent, and decrease their mental health risks.
“Depressed parents and their families should know that there is much one can do to reduce a child’s risk for becoming depressed. Just one adult who’s available and willing to help support the child can make a big difference in a child’s life when a parent is depressed,” says Sherman. Additional emotional support can come from relatives in the family, a child psychologist, school teachers, church members, or other role models in community groups. Spouses of depressed parents also need support, since parental duties often fall disproportionately upon them much of the time. Couples and family therapy are also great resources that teach healthy communication, as well as how to build coping resources and resiliency in all family members.

Grandparents can also be a great resource in mitigating the negative effects of parental depression upon a child. “Frequent contact between a child and his or her grandparents, especially if the relationship is warm and nurturing, lessens the likelihood the child will develop depression later in life” according to Fogarty. “It is important for children to have a strong adult who is consistent in his or her life” adds Fogarty.

Adults hoping to help should provide a structured environment whenever possible, most importantly, one that encourages a child to express their emotions. “That can be as simple as maintaining a dialogue with the children, keeping the lines of communication open. It can also be showing sensitivity to the child’s needs,” says Fogarty. Children with a depressed parent need adults who can detect their emotional state, since they often struggle to notice their own feelings and mood. As children, they’ve learned to focus on the emotional states of others, as a way to anticipate the shifting moods of their depressed parent. “If a child comes home after a bad day and is visibly upset, a depressed caregiver might not be available to help them through that process,” says Fogarty.

Is there hope for children raised by a depressed parent?

Some of these children show incredible resiliency, in spite of the challenges they’ve faced being raised by a depressed parent. These tend to be children with higher than average intelligence, who learn early on how to utilize an array of outside resources for guidance and support. They are often capable of socially complex problem solving, appearing ‘wise beyond their years.’ Further, they are usually comfortable with stressful situations, making them well suited to careers that require them to anticipate and read others’ emotions. They tend to be independent and self-sufficient, and are often ‘the workhorse’ and conflict facilitator in groups. As adults, they are usually sensitive and understanding of others with mental health issues. While children raised by a depressed parent remain vulnerable to depression themselves due to the aforementioned reasons, this experience does not mean they are doomed to repeating the life of their depressed parent. With sufficient support and early intervention, children raised by a depressed parent can go on to lead normal, healthy lives.

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