Children look to their parents for support, guidance and stability in life. This is how society has always operated. But when mental health issues enter the equation, it may be more of a challenge for a parent to fulfill those roles — and this has potential consequences. For example, a depressed mother’s effect on her children could be larger and longer-lasting than we might realize.
In this piece, we’ll be talking about what it’s like to grow up with a depressed parent — from the perspective of both sides involved — and discuss the outcomes and why it’s so important to get the help you need when you need it.
What It’s Like Growing Up With a Depressed Parent
A parent’s main responsibilities, whether as part of a two-parent household or raising children on their own, are well-defined in social norms. They have to take care of the basic needs of their family and their children. This means providing a place to live and sleep, food to eat and love and support at the very least.
Being a parent is a big responsibility, and many parents (especially single mothers and fathers) struggle to balance everything in their lives — work, bills, rent, food, cleaning, taking the kids to school and other responsibilities.
But if you’re a parent who’s struggling with depression, it’s even more challenging. Now you’re trying to balance all those commitments while dealing with the suffocating feeling of hopelessness and complete lack of motivation that comes with acute or clinical depression.
Effects of Depression on the Parent
Depressed mothers or fathers have a harder time supporting their families. They may not be able to work as much or spend money on therapy or antidepressant medication, extending the potential for financial insecurity.
They may not have as much time or energy to spend on their children, and this can lead to neglect. They may be quicker to anger or less patient with their children because of their inability to regulate their mood and emotions due to their illness.
Often, parents try to hide their battles with depression from their children to protect them. However, the effects of depression may still be noticed by a child.
According to Megan Smith of the Yale Medicine Child Study Center and the New Haven Mental Health Outreach for Mothers (MOMS) Partnership, parents who struggle with depression and other mental health issues may not realize the effect their personal battles are having on their loved ones. “Depression disrupts a parent’s ability to work, parent and participate in the community,” she says.
Effects of a Depressed Parent on a Child
Despite depressed parents’ instinct to “protect” their children from their suffering, children do notice. They may wonder why their father is suddenly distant or why their mom lets them fend for themselves for days at a time.
Children tend to internalize these effects and may blame themselves when they feel neglected. And a depressed mother’s effect on her children may not manifest in only one way. It can have effects both right away and long into the future.
A depressed parent’s potential inability to fulfill all their responsibilities as a mother or father can cause various short-term effects. Children may lag behind their peers because they don’t make it to school every day, or because their parent doesn’t take part in educationally enriching activities with them at home.
They may lack guidance and support. Children who feel neglected tend to act out to get attention, and they may get in more trouble and become labeled a “problem” because of what they feel is missing at home.
While it might seem that growing up with a depressed parent would only cause issues while a person is a child and dependent on that parent, research has shown this isn’t the case.
Living with a parent struggling with a mental illness is a form of childhood trauma, also called an Adverse Childhood Experience or ACE. Studies have shown there’s a connection between childhood trauma and issues such as mental health disorders, addiction and homelessness when a person becomes an adult. A few statistics on ACEs from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Just under one in six people surveyed said that they had at least one ACE over the course of their childhood.
- An estimated 21 million cases of adult depression are caused by ACEs.
What this tells us is that not only does having a depressed mother or father have lifelong consequences, but it also almost certainly proliferates a cycle of trauma. A depressed parent can cause an ACE for their child, making them more likely to struggle with depression when they reach parenting age themselves.
Steps to Take to Resolve Trauma Caused by a Parent With Depression
At this point, we’ve explored how having a parent with depression can be extremely consequential for a child. We’ve also learned that while many parents try to hide their personal battles with depression and mental illness, it’s often not possible to conceal the effects of these issues.
This means the only way to ensure children don’t suffer due to their parents’ mental health issues is to get help as early as possible. If you’re struggling with depression, even if you don’t think it’s severe, it’s important to understand that you can never be sure how your illness is perceived by your children.
It’s best to seek the advice of mental health professionals and work on managing your depression before it becomes more severe and affects your children in increasingly significant ways.
Seeking Help From FHE Health
At FHE Health, we’ve seen parental depression from both sides. We’ve seen the depressed mother’s effect on her children, and we’ve seen the children who suffered trauma as a result of a growing up with a depressed parent.
While it may not seem this way while you’re dealing with it, you can overcome depression — and the positive impact getting help can have will be felt by others, including your children.
The same applies to adults affected by childhood trauma while growing up. It’s never too late to seek help when you have unresolved trauma causing issues years later. If you or a loved one need help, contact us at FHE Health today.