How to Help Children of Depressed Parents Cope

Filed under: Behavior: Big Kids, Behavior: Tweens, Behavior: Teens

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Depression in children is very serious.

At any given time, 5 percent of children age 9 to 17 meet the criteria for major depression. The symptoms of depression in children include feelings of sadness or hopelessness, loss of interest in activities, low energy and fatigue, irritability, poor performance in school, tantrums, change in appetite and sleep habits, and unfounded complaints of illness. More serious symptoms include self-harming thoughts and behavior. In many cases, the root of childhood depression can be found in the people with whom they are closest.

Depressed parents are -- almost by definition -- pessimistic and uninterested in life and social activities; they also have low energy. Many would prefer to spend their depressed days in bed. 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, says Kate Fogarty, assistant professor of youth development at the University of Florida. "And the longer that children grow up with depressed mothers, the more negative the effects are. We're talking even early childhood," she says.

Children of depressed parents are at greater risk than others for academic and behavioral problems and for developing depression themselves. The risks are a complicated stew of genetics and environmental circumstances, says Michelle Sherman, Ph.D., 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, she adds.

Is Mom's Depression More Harmful?

A mother's depression can trigger behavioral problems in her children, according to Fogarty. "Mothers' depression does tend to contribute to teens having problem behaviors, as well as social and academic difficulties. In some cases the effects tend to be stronger with adolescent daughters," she says.

One study of 244 formerly depressed adolescents found 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 effect a depressed father can have on children has not been studied as thoroughly as the effect of the mother, 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 caretaker, but that's changing."

Depressed Parents Don't Doom Their Children

Despite the bleak prognosis, depressed parents and their families should know that there is much one can do to mitigate 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. The extra emotional support can come from another relative like an aunt or uncle, or from members of school, church, or community groups. "If you're the spouse, you'll be busy with the depressed person most of the time, so you'll need help with the kids," she says.

Grandparents can also buffer the negative effects of parental depression. 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's research. It is important for children to have a strong adult who is consistent in his or her life. "That person could be inside family or outside family. This type of relationship may promote resilience -- or in other words, the child will be less likely to experience negative outcomes," says Fogarty.

A steady caretaker can provide a structured environment, but one where a child can feel free to express 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. A child also needs a caretaker who can detect their emotional state. "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.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.