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Depressed Parents and the Effects on Their Children

Schools are reporting more and more children entering who seem to be unable to meet the basic demands of sitting, paying attention, and controlling themselves. More and more children are placed in special ed programs. The number of children on Ritalin is rising at an alarming rate.

No one knows why this is occurring. Some blame Nintendo, some blame divorce, some blame two-career families.

At the same time, the incidence of clinical depression among adults — including parents — is almost epidemic, and continues to rise. Today almost twenty percent of the population meet the criteria for some form of depression — and that does not mean people who are temporarily feeling the blues and will be better next week, but people who are having real difficulty functioning in life. Count every fifth person you see on the street — that’s how many people in your community who may be suffering from depression. I think we need to understand the connection between adult depression and children’s behavior.

The Connection Between Childhood Problems and Parental Depression

Good child therapists know that often when a child is in trouble, parents are depressed. Though the parents often feel that the child’s behavior is the source of their distress, in fact often the child is reacting to the parent’s depression.

I know of extreme cases where parents have “expelled” the troublesome child from the home (through private school, placement with relatives, or runaway) only to have the next child in age step into the troublemaking role. We often explain to parents that the child is really trying to get a rise out of them, to get them to be parents, to put their foot down, enforce rules, and pay attention. The parent may never have realized that, in reality, he or she is quite depressed. When we can treat the depression successfully, the parent has the energy to pay attention, to set limits, to be firm and consistent — and the child’s behavior improves.

The Cycle of Depression

There is a great deal of research documenting that children of depressed parents are at high risk for depression themselves, as well as for substance abuse and antisocial activities. Many studies have found that depressed mothers have difficulty bonding with their infants; they are less sensitive to the baby’s needs and less consistent in their responses to the baby’s behavior. The babies appear more unhappy and isolated than other children. They may be difficult to comfort, appear listless, and be difficult to feed and put to sleep.

Depressed Parents and the Effects on Their Children

Richard O' Connor, Ph.D.

APA Reference
O' Connor, R. (2020). Depressed Parents and the Effects on Their Children. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.