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.)

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

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  1. Lumin says:

    I am not sure if this post is still active.. but I have severe depression.. I have 3 children 12,15 and 17. My oldest and youngest seem fine.. but my middle child… when I look at her I feel like I am looking in a mirror.. she is withdrawn, depressed, overweight (which I know does not help with depression), and she always seems either mad or sad.. there is not middle ground..

    I took her to see a shrink and I had to be in the room with her because of her age.. he talked to her for about 5 min then focused his attention on me for some reason.. he said that there was nothing wrong with my daughter and that I was the problem…. because I am depressed it is making her depressed..

    well I never went back to him again.. but by the end of the session I felt like (well I can not say it here) . He had me crying uncontrollably in front of my daughter.. I do not cry in front of my kids because I don’t think it is something they need to see… but I could not hold it in when he had me pinned to the ground making me feel like dirt..

    by the time the session was over if my daughter had not been with me I probably would have driven my car off of a bridge or something..

    I am still not sure if her depression is feeding off of mine or not.. sometimes I feel like it might be better to find her another place to stay but I love my daughter and I don’t think I could ever do that..

  2. Anonymous says:

    What should I do now? I already have 3 children, and they are fairly young. I have suffered from intractable depression their whole lives. I have tried EVERYTHING, including, recently, a series of ketamine, which did not help. If I leave, I harm them; if I stay, I harm them. I have fought the fight of my life all these years, and I am losing.

    • anonymous71 says:

      I’m in a similar boat. My kids are my entire life. If I ‘stay’ they will see me suffer. If I ‘leave’ they will suffer. I can’t been away from them for a second and am often teary eyed with them. The mother and I are on tenderhooks, each planning on leaving and pursuing court battles. My eldest will be devastated beyond repair if I don’t see him everyday and so will I.

  3. Julius says:

    Pediatric colleagues tell stories of depressed parents who break down and cry during a . I don t love the “do it for your child s sake” argument; I worry it suggests that the parent isn t .

  4. Rae says:

    I grew up with a depressed mother. I was also sexually abused by her second husband who adopted me and my sister. Mother eventually left him and when she did she also left us with him. Fortunately for me, I had her parents, my grandparents, to basically raise me. Every chance I could get I was with them, and my parents only tried separating us 2 times that I can remember. I am grateful that my grandmother was strong enough to deal with me. I am sure I put her through hell, I was an angry child, never physical, except to my brother and sister. But when I did wrong my grandfather was there to make sure I knew my place. Often telling me, “Now see what you did to poor Mema, and she loves you so much. You made her feel bad, you need to apologize.” And it broke my heart because I never wanted to hurt her intentionally. I think I just had this whole depressive inside world of my own, I internalized it all, and took it out in bad ways. She never understood but she was always so supportive no matter how hard I pushed. And I am now a young mother myself and I am struggling with self worth and of imagining my own darkness somehow infesting my beautiful son. My man, my sons biological father, is supportive in many ways but not as emotionally. He doesn’t quite understand my darkness but in our 4 year relationship, the longest I have ever had by the way, he has never just “given up” on me like other’s have. I truly believe I have been blessed somehow, even though when my depression kicks in it is hard for me to remember that, it is a million times better than my teenage years. Although I know I still have a long way to go. I struggle with anxiety and self esteem, I am afraid of storms, being alone, driving….at first I was scared to be alone with my son as a newborn because I feared I didnt know how to be a mother so much. and it took me a couple months but me and my son bonded and I took my new role with open arms as I became more confident with my motherly skills and soon also got my first job and held it for over a year before circumstances set it to be easier for me to stay at home. But knowledge of my anxiety and depressive nature has set me up to be judged by my mans family, especially his mother, who reminds me on a daily basis that I am basically not worthy. I take comfort in the fact that she doesn’t have much to offer herself either and I also believe she may be a depressed person herself, but she is one of those who would never admit. So I let her bite chunks out of me, and sometimes its a little more than I can take. Fortunately my boyfriend is mostly supportive to me. He just doesn’t go out of his way to make me feel bad and he does try in his own sweet way to comfort me in the only ways he knows how to do. We are in the midst of buying our first home and I am so excited/anxious about the whole ordeal that my darkness has been acting up and it’s not like I don’t do anything for my son, I will cook him a meal and change his diapers but I just don’t see the “miracle” anymore on my bad days like this. And I know he notices. I stop taking care of myself and I auto pilot through the day. I wanted to share a bit of my story because I don’t believe any of this is my mothers fault. In fact when I think of her now I feel very sorry for her and I wonder if she truly could never remember what it was like to feel magic in the world, and I forgive her when she calls me to tell me I am a pathetic mother when we do talk because I understand she is talking to herself in her drunken state. Not that it is ever often and she has only seen my son 3 times since his birth and she lives down the street. He is now 2. And it HAS taken me many years to admit that it isn’t entirely her fault. She is just suffering, too. Maybe worse than me, maybe in ways I pray that I will never understand. Yes, her actions attributed to my depression but ultimately it is up to me to take responsibility for my life and my emotions. And that is unfortunately the ugly truth, especially for all of you I see on here stating your parents are the ultimate blame for you demise. My guilt I feel for my son reminds me of that whenever I get in my moods. Thankfully he is such a loving and forgiving soul. And I realize no matter how petty I may get I will never break it. And I will continue to build myself up so I may be a strong mother for when the world DOES try to tear him down. Did you know that a teenagers mind is actually kinda wired FOR depression? So please. Let’s all learn to take responsibility for our emotions. And then we can forgive ourselves and love ourselves for who we are. Sorry for this book. I just wanted to share to help continue the inspirational healing the original story the man shared. It was so beautiful I cried so fully more than I have in over half a year and it was of hope. Tears of liberation I have never felt before, a blossoming of forgiveness for myself. It was what I really needed today. Thank you so much for sharing your story of hope. Now I think I can shower and take my boy to the park and enjoy this beautiful weather, as I was finishing this my man told me he is going to stay the night with us when he gets home at 9 pm. Another blessing, for we are living in seperate cities until our house is final. Thankfully my grandmother is here still holding me within her gracious arms for when she heard of my soon to be mother in laws abusive ways towards me she immediately took us in. My circle is small but I have angels on my side, although it took me awhile to see it. Please. If you are feeling depressed today just take a look at something beautiful, count your blessings and soak in the feeling of gratitude until it makes you cry. Those tears are physical release and a manifestation of forgiveness. Thank you for sharing your story. You have no idea who it might reach out to.

  5. 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.

  6. 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….

  7. 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.

  8. 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”

  9. 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.

    • Mememe says:

      Ella you write so well. I think I grew up being codependent on my mom and not knowing how or what to think without her in an effort to respect her wisdom, her parenting efforts, her desire to have me not distance myself from my culture. Now that she is gone I can barely tolerate my father. He has remarried to try to find some joy after losing his soulmate and I realized I don’t like him… He had a hard childhood and seems to have low line depression and control issues and cultural and generational differences… And I have enough on my plate trying to be normal and not devalue myself and react like an appropriate person to things and try not to show my own low lying depression and to role model great behaviour for my kids while explaining when I’m cranky that it is me and that I will feel better and that they are awesome, hard working, gracious, kind, beauties. Thank god my husband is a fully capable achiever… He parents so well when I’m acting like a loser and having to isolate myself and google until I feel better. Rambling… Thanks for reading…

  10. Alan Smith says:

    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.

  11. 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 (, 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.

  12. 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!

  13. 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…

  14. 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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