Depression can sap your desire to care for and about yourself, but it can also affect your children and how you parent. But talking with your family about depression and managing your symptoms can help.
Depression is a mental health condition that causes persistent feelings of despair, low self-worth, and emptiness. It’s more than a state of low mood. It’s also a loss of self-motivation and disinterest in things that once brought you joy.
As a parent, symptoms of depression can mean more than just impairment in your life. It’s a condition that can affect the care of your children and their development — despite your best intentions.
Read on to find answers to some of your most pressing questions about depression and how to parent when you live with this condition.
Parenting can be a challenge, even in the best circumstances. Children test boundaries, need supervision, and seek interactive attention.
Angela Dube, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Salem, Oregon, explains that parenting from a place of depression can make you feel numb and disconnected from your children.
“It can be incredibly difficult to move through day-to-day tasks,” Dube says. “Even the simplest things can feel like major chores. Some days it can be hard to get out of bed, never mind cook a meal or play with a child.”
Dube adds that it’s typical to feel your frustration tolerance is poor. This can lead to increased situations of conflict, yelling, or urges to harm your child. You may find that you’re harsher or rougher than you should be.
Parenting with depression can cause an intense sense of shame. “[Parents] can feel guilty for their depression because it feels like they aren’t doing enough for their kids, harming their kids, or not giving their kids the life they deserve,” Dube says.
According to Dr. Ryan Sultan, a board certified psychiatrist, researcher, and professor at Colombia University in New York City, there are both short- and long-term effects of parental depression on children.
“Children may pick up on their parent’s emotional state, including feelings of sadness, irritability, or emotional distance,” says Sultan. “They may sense that something is wrong, even if they don’t fully understand what depression is.”
According to Sultan, the potential effects of parental depression on children can include:
- constant emotional turmoil
- impaired emotional development
- insecure attachment formation
- impaired social and behavioral learning
- increased chance of childhood mental health challenges
- poor academic performance
- increased stress levels
- increased chance of generational depression
Depression in parents has also been linked with poorer physical health and well-being in children, according to
Children who go on to develop depression may have an earlier onset, experience greater functional impairment, and be more likely to have depression recur if there’s a history of parental depression.
Perinatal depression, which includes prenatal and postpartum depression, was once thought to be a form of parental depression specific to biological women, but research shows otherwise.
A 2020 review found that perinatal depression was also common among men, potentially affecting more than 20 million men around the world annually.
How you discuss depression with your child largely depends on their age.
“For young kids, it can be as simple as saying, ‘The way my brain works is that sometimes I get sad easily or for no reason,'” Dube says. “For older children, you can have more sophisticated conversations about mental health diagnoses.”
She recommends letting your child know that your sadness isn’t related to them in any way and that they’re always loved and cherished.
Sultan suggests emphasizing to a child that it’s not their responsibility to “fix” or cure your depression. “Help them understand that depression is an illness, just like any other physical illness, and that it’s not their fault,” he says.
He also suggests that parents:
- validate and allow their children to express their feelings
- provide reassurance
- answer questions openly and honestly
- offer age-appropriate resources
- consider having the conversation with a mental health professional’s guidance
Help is always available even when you may not know where to look. Some places to start include:
- your primary care physician
- the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357
- family and friends
- support groups (for depression and/or parenting)
“Talking with your primary care physician is a great place to start,” Dube says. “They should be able to help assess your symptoms and needs, provide referrals, and prescribe medication if appropriate.”
Treating depression successfully typically means more than medication. Speaking with a mental health professional can explore why you’re experiencing depression and encourage skill-building for overcoming symptoms.
You can’t “snap out” of depression. It isn’t a mood, and it isn’t under your control. But you can find ways to make parenting with depression easier, and you can successfully manage the symptoms of depression.
Sultan and Dube recommend the following tips for parents to try:
- get quality sleep
- stay hydrated
- eat a balanced diet
- avoid sugary foods, alcohol, and excessive screen time
- keep a list of positive, enjoyable activities you can engage in
- educate yourself about depression
- develop a support network
- cultivate relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or meditation
- practice mindfulness and self-compassion
- ask for daily task or responsibility help from friends and family
- stay committed to treatment
“Many parents hold themselves to high standards because they want the world for their kids or want to avoid recreating patterns they grew up with,” says Dube. “Be gentle with yourself. All parents are learning as they go, doing the best they can.”
Parenting with depression can affect how your children learn, develop, and relate to the world around them. It can have short- and long-term impacts on your entire family.
Depression doesn’t inherently make you a “bad” parent. Seeking treatment, educating your family about depression, and practicing self-compassion are all ways you can lessen the impact this condition has on you and your family.