According to a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences, at least fifteen million children (about one in five) in the U.S. live in households with parents who have major or severe depression. Parental depression negatively affects a parent’s care-giving, material support, and ability to be nurturing, and is associated with poor health and developmental outcomes for children of all ages, including prenatally. Depressed mothers are more like to have poor parenting skills and to have negative interactions with their children.
Children of depressed mothers are more likely than other children to have behavior problems, academic difficulties, and health problems. Maternal depression has also been linked to delays in cognitive and motor development among children 2 to 4 years old. Long-term, severe maternal depression has been found to have extremely harmful consequences for child development and behavior. Five-year-old children whose mothers experienced frequent and severe depression were more likely to have behavioral problems and lower vocabulary scores.
The child of a depressed parent learns to adapt to their situation regardless of how unstable, scary, or unpredictable it may be. Part of that adaption may be to avoid their parent or try not to say or do anything that might worsen their already depressed mood. Some children begin to believe that their parents depressed mood is their fault and they feel a sense of guilt and unknowing about what they are doing ‘wrong’.
“Is My Child Okay ,” (Paul, 2000) offers 5 suggestions for what to do if you are a parent or spouse of someone suffering depression.
1. Get professional help right away. If you are aware that you or your spouse may be depressed you need to seek professional help and get a proper diagnosis. The parent needs to take this first step, and it needs to be urgent. Psychiatric research has proven conclusively that children of depressed parents are at the highest risk of suffering long-term psychological pathology.
2. Be aware of any symptoms of psychiatric problems in your child. Early signs of low self-esteem, negative self-image, behavior problems, and hyperactivity are possible indicators of childhood pathology.
3. Make sure you have a support system. If you know that your depression is negatively interfering with your ability to interact with your child then make sure others are there for them. Age-appropriate interaction and attachment are crucial to your child’s development.
4. Lessen the impact of your depression on your child. Try to be consistent with your normal routine and schedule of your daily activities. Giving in to the depression, completely withdrawing both physically and emotionally, and shutting down all together will not only intensify your own depression but have a horrific impact on your child.
5. Be aware of your child’s behavior. Your child’s frustration, anger, withdrawal, or sadness is a sign to change your behavior and try to restore some kind of balance to the home. Your children are more harmed by these episodes of depression than you may know.