How Does Depression Affect Your Children?

Child looking out window at rain

A reader asked me recently about how his depression might affect his children. He knew he had put his wife through hell and didn’t want to have the same thing happen to their kids.

He was even wondering if there were parents who had thought about not getting married and not having children because of the harm they might cause.

When I find other parents talking about this online, they’re usually still depressed. They often assume that they’re hurting their children – or that the hurt they observe at the moment will result in permanent harm.

That worry joins a dozen others to complete the picture of themselves as bad or worthless. In other words, the belief that you are hurting your children forever is part of the illness, certainly not an objective judgment.

I was convinced of the same thing, but it turned out that I was wrong. I’m old enough to have seen my kids develop into their 30s. Each of our three sons has had his share of emotional problems, including depression and anxiety, but they’ve recognized them and gotten help when they’ve needed it.

They’re all thriving. Not only that, my wife and I have loving relationships with each of them.

This still surprises me because I too was convinced I could only be hurting them. I assumed in the grief of depression that they would not only bear permanent scars but that they would also resent my emotional legacy.

All I could focus on as I looked back were the times I was at my worst, truly out of control and acting in emotionally abusive ways.

But that wasn’t the whole story. There were many other things going on.

  • When depressed, I not only felt badly about myself, I believed that everything revolved around my negative influence. I was forgetting all the times I wasn’t depressed. There were wonderful moments as well as bad ones and everything in between. When looking back, however, memory may select out the worst times and make the illness seem more consistent that it really was.
  • I was also forgetting that my depression wasn’t the only thing affecting them. Family life is critical in anyone’s growth, but kids have lives as complicated as those of adults. There’s no predicting how they react to what happens. My brother and I, for example, had almost opposite reactions to growing up with a deeply depressed mother and an emotionally absent father.
  • I was concerned about depression as a genetic inheritance, but that too can be exaggerated. Experts refer to a family history of depression as a risk factor, not a predictor of depression. Genes do help transmit the illness from one generation to another, but genes only create a predisposition to depression. Whether or not it develops depends on many contributing factors – biological, psychological and social, in combinations that vary for each person.
  • The effect of a parent on a child’s development goes beyond one period in life. Recent research indicates that positive experience can repair some of the damage caused by early trauma. My experience with my mother had a long-term effect, I believe, partly because she never became aware of her depression. Our relationship was stuck. (Even so, my mother’s depression didn’t “cause” mine. It was only one factor among many.)
  • My relationship with my children has been very different. They lived through my worst, true, but they also lived with me as I became aware of the illness and got help to deal with it. They saw that my wife and I could repair a damaged relationship. They heard and felt my concern about the effect I might be having on them. They listened to discussions about depression as an illness and learned that therapy and medication could help.
  • More important than any of this is the fact that they had their own rich and unique personalities from their earliest years. Each had their own way of reacting, and there was no way to predict what effect my illness might ultimately have.

As with most things about depression, there’s no single answer to this reader’s concerns about his potentially harmful influence on his child. But I think the fact that he is concerned about this possibility and is looking for help means that his child is getting a lot more from his father than just the depression.

(This post first appeared in the Storied Mind Newsletter.)

16 Responses to “How Does Depression Affect Your Children?”

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  1. Schleprock says:

    A mentally ill parent is never a good thing. They do not perceive the world as other people do and this is passed along to their children. Parents are ultimately responsible for both nature and nurture of their children. If daddy thinks the world is a horrible place it is going to come through in how he acts and how he talks. The kids may not have witnessesed a parent putting a gun in their mouth but attitudes are clear to children. Optimism and pessimism make themselves known.

    I think you are the rare example of a good outcome.

    Even healthy parents fill their children’s heads full of all manner of nonsense. Children learn everything from what is good food to if they should trust strangers from parents.

    • kim says:

      No, you’re right, it’s not a good thing. I still suffer the guilt of how I have”damaged”, my child and still continue to worry about the effects it will have on his future. When he was younger(he’s only 9 now) I stayed to myself and was very isolated from the rest of the world. This kept him isolated to an extent and it has affected the way he relates to his peers. It’s like he doesn’t know how to act around kids his age because he was never shown how to act. You are right again, when you say kids learn how to behave from seeing how their parents behave. I know that is not the only way they learn, but I know it has a HUGE influence. He is in a class for kids that have behavior and emotional problems and I can’t help but to feel like it’s my fault. I am getting help for myself, as well as him, and can only hope that it can be turned around. What I have noticed, though, is the better I get and the better I feel, the better and happier he seems to be. He is still young and no matter what, I will never give up on him or on my recovery. Beating myself up about the past does not help me or him. It only makes me feel worse about myself, so for today, I am choose not to do that! The past is done! there is nothing I can do about it. I can only move forward and try each day to be the best mom I can be to my son.

      • Panic Answer says:

        Thank you for sharing. It is specially hard for parents who do not recognize initial symptoms of depression or other mental health related matters to suddenly find out when a crisis situation happens. They may end up blaming each other or feeling guilty. But it is true that feeling guilty doesn’t solve the problem. The priority is the child who has suffered silently for a long time. For the parents, it may be the opportunity to really show that they understand and stand with the child whatever may happen.

  2. Destanie says:

    When my mom left my dad went into a deep depression. With me being the oldest child and being closer to my father than my younger brother his depression fell into me. I felt like i was living in my own world. I couldn’t trust no one and i still can’t. Only being 14 years old and going through all of this hurt me. I don’t want to do anything and i never want to be at the house.
    Now that my mom moved back i don’t even speak to anyone.
    I lock myself up in my room and don’t come out.
    I ignore everyone who tries to help me.
    I just shut down. I just think its the best thing to do right now.
    So a parents depression can affect a child in many ways….

  3. sonya says:

    My partner of 17 years is depressed and I feel the weight of it on my shoulders. He no longer works and now I work 70 + hours a week. He does take care of household things and spends alot of time with our 14 year old son. This weekend I was talking to our son and he made a comment about how sad it was for dad to look at his dead brothers pictures. His brother passed away over 20 years ago. Now I see how my son feels he needs to make dad feel better. I have been living with this man for 17 years and I “deal” with him but now he has put it on our son. I want to get him away from this. My son needs to grow up and worry about his own life and not How dad feels. i have been planning to leave for years but just can’t do it. He won’t get help. I am getting help but I just can’t take it anymore.

  4. Kelvin says:

    I sometimes feel like my kids are paying for my wife’s depression. I do not believe she is clinically depressed, but she definitely has issues with past life experiences (from childhood) that cause her to be “crabby” most of the time. Not abusive, but she is unhappy and it shows through in her communication.

    • sonya says:

      I have been living with this for years now and I have to take a stand. My son cannot always “worry about his daddy”

  5. Ella says:

    My mother was depressed at conception. Based on circumstances I think she didn’t even want me. My Only other sibling was 14 years older than me. I grew up alone in my own little world. As a teenager and an adult I have struggled a lot and today I am depressed myself possibly had been for longer but never been diagnosed. Children of depressed parents should be monitored. God only knows how many times I hated myself, brought myself down and failed at human relationships just because I was mirroring my upbringing with a depressed mother. My father worked from Monday to Sunday so he wasn’t around much to see how she would take it out on me and when he was he expected me (a child) to understand that my mother was sick!
    No Children don’t grow up to be healthy adults when they have depressed parents. From the outside people see me smile, I have jobs, hobbies, interests….. To anyone who doesn’t know me and my struggles I am a normal person.
    As a teenager I didn’t want to be like my mother. In my twenties I wanted to marry have kids and be a good housewife like my mother. Her house was always spotless and her food was always great I give her that! Now In my 30’s I don’t know whether to love her or hate her memory. I don’t know who was the real her? The evil witch or the Martha Stewart? In either of those scenarios I was either the devil or in the way so whichever I choose I still have a lot to come to terms with. My Father after she died decided she was a saint. I feel that I cannot talk to him about the verbal and emotional abuse that went on when he was at work. My brother is distant and emotionally constipated. 9 years after she died if I mention her in conversation he changes subject quickly.
    I know this whole rant might seem to go on a tangent but this is an example of an internal dialogue of an adult child of a depressed parent.

  6. Alan Smith says:

    Hi,
    Thanks for the share.Nowadays depression is a common problem in teens.They suffer from this depression by the age of 14.Due to this depression there are various changes occur on you.Your shared depression effects are very much appropriate.

  7. Shar says:

    I think I am absolutely drowning in this depression my husband has! I agree about not having children, but too late after raising step children and our children, I am completely at the end of my rope, how to cope!

    • Janet says:

      I’ve been dealing with a very sick/depressed spouse for about 3 years. Last year it got to the point that I MADE him seek help. However, I didn’t realize there was also help for ME through the NAMI association in our area. I strongly suggest that you get in contact with your local office. They offer a class (I’m not sure how often) called Family to Family that has helped me more than I can put in words!! I truly believe it would help anyone who is supporting a loved one through any form of mental illness. Please, please check it out. I totally understand your feeling of drowning yourself!! This organization has truly been a life saving for ME. It explains so much and I’ve made some wonderful friends who can relate to and support me on MY bad days.

    • Sally says:

      It’s true that depression can affect the children if all they see is their parent in this state. However, like this article states, children can grow up healthy and thrive. I feel the key to helping your children is to keep open age appropriate communication with them. By educating yourself and seeking marriage therapy (www.hitations.com), you can learn to answer the tough questions that leave children confused and lost when it comes to watching a depressed parent growing up. There is help out there for depression and help for your children so that they can thrive and develop into healthy adults in the future.

  8. MJ says:

    I side with Catherine, seriously depressed people should not have children unless they’ve gotten help and made progress. Looking at my family, I can see at least three generations of depression, self hatred, attempted and successful suicide and alcohol abuse behind me. There might have been more – that might be why my greatgrandparents did such enormous harm to my grandparents. Maybe both families should have been nipped in the bud 150-200 years ago?

    My mother was bitterly miserable, and addicted, and never got help, her father was a depressive alcoholic and a huge jerk and never got help, I’m 40, can’t stand anyone in my family (after I got help and recognized how determined they all were to stay miserable, inflict harm and act out, I lost any compassion or tolerance I could have ever had for them) and am still recovering from a truly miserable childhood (mostly miserable because the whole family was miserable and no one had the energy or courage to break the cycle). I can say very honestly that I do not believe that my parents should have ever had me – though my grandparents should not have had my parents either. If you can’t stop lashing out and acting out, and refuse to get help, you should never have kids. Fix yourself or take yourself away from people so you can’t hurt anyone else.

    Catherine, hang in there sistah! I hear you. I have a good marriage and pretty decent life and I still wonder many mornings what there is to live for, or what any of us have that is worth living for. I must still be believing that there is something. If we die prematurely we’ll never find the thing that does make it all worthwhile! Maybe it will just be flourishing to spite our awful families!

  9. Catherine commented on Storied Mind:

    Alcoholism, anxiety, major depression and bipolar have been traced several generations back on both sides of the family. My father had anxiety and my mother had major depression.Read more…

  10. Catherine says:

    Alcoholism, anxiety, major depression and bipolar have been traced several generations back on both sides of the family. My father had anxiety and my mother had major depression.

    All four of us “children”, now 46 – 52, have been in therapy for years and are on medication. I have anxiety and major depression. One sibiling has bipolar 2. Another has anxiety and bipolar 2. The fourth is bipolar and probably has borderline personality discorder. None of us have children – too afraid to pass on the genetic load.

    My mother’s depression and narcisstic personality definitely wreaked havoc on our emotional development. She went to therapy and was a member of numeous anonymous groups, but didn’t really do any of the “work” she needed to do to become a functioning adult. And then having a father with major anxiety who later in life dealt w/his anxiety by becoming an alcoholic (instead of going to therapy and taking some type of anti-anxiety med) didn’t help.

    I’m the only one married. (Twenty-five years and probably should have divorced him after the first year!) My brother probably won’t end up in a long term relationship unless he makes major breakthroughs in his therapy. One sister is in a long term relationship with a recovered alcoholic, but it’s a verbally abusive relationship. My other sister is severely mentally and pysically ill. I can’t imagine what it’s like to feel happy for more than an hour or two.

    Should someone with major depression consider not having children? My answer is a definite yes! I think it’s extremely selfish and irresponsible to have children if you have the kind of genetic load my parents had and the fact that they both had anxiety/depression problems. There was no way they were able to ever emotionally support us or provide a stable home environment where we had “fun”. It’s truy amazing that not one of us (children) has committed suicide (even though I want to) and that none of us have drug or alcohol problems – I attribute this to medication and long term therapy. I’m sure between the four of us we’ve spent over $100,000 in therapy.

    • Schleprock says:

      I agree with you. I am a drunk and have depression, OCD, and social anxiety. I will not produce offspring.
      Murder would not be as great of a sin to me as bringing someone else into the world I live in. It would be torture.

      Why would anyone who was aware of their problems ever think of passing them along to someone else. The risk they might inherit my problems is just too high.
      I have a right to gamble with myself. I do not have a right to gamble with someone else.

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