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.)