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Depressed Parents and the Effects on Their Children

When they reach the toddler stage, such children are often very hard to handle, defiant, negative, and refusing to accept parental authority. This, of course, reinforces the parents’ sense of failure. Father and mother’s parenting is likely to remain inconsistent, because nothing they do has any visible effect.

At our clinic, we have become so used to hearing from single mothers of four-year-old boys (a particularly difficult combination) that we have a standard treatment plan: get mom some immediate relief (daycare, relatives, camp, baby-sitters), then treat her depression, teach her to defuse power struggles, and start slowly to rebuild an affectionate bond between mother and child.

When the depressed parent isn’t able to get help like this, the outlook isn’t good for the child. He or she grows up with dangerous and destructive ideas about the self–that he’s unlovable, uncontrollable, and a general nuisance. He doesn’t know how to get attention from adults in positive ways, so gets labeled a troublemaker. He doesn’t know how to soothe himself, so is at risk for substance abuse. He doesn’t know he’s a worthwhile human being, so is at risk for depression. He hasn’t learned how to control his own behavior, so he can’t fit into school or work.

Solutions for Depression

No one knows for sure why the incidence of adult depression keeps increasing. Many people don’t realize they have it. At our office, a community mental health center in rural Connecticut, we see two or three new people every week who have trouble sleeping and have other physical symptoms, feel anxious and overwhelmed, have lost ambition and hope, feel alone and alienated, are tormented by guilt or obsessional thoughts, may even have thoughts of suicide-but they don’t say they’re depressed. They just feel that life stinks and there’s nothing they can do about it. If their children are out of control, they think that they don’t have what it takes to be parents.

The tragic irony is that adult depression is rather easily treated – certainly at much less social cost than schools’ attempts to teach children self-control. New antidepressant medications and focused psychotherapy can reliably and efficiently help 80 to 90 percent of depressed patients; and the earlier we can catch it, the better the chances of success.

If your children are in trouble, maybe you should be evaluated for depression. Take your spouse along. In addition, every fall there’s a National Depression Screening Day. It only takes a half hour to be tested, and it’s free. Call 800-573-4433 to get the location of the site nearest you.

Richard O’Connor, Ph.D. is a psychologist and author of Undoing Depression: What Therapy Doesn’t Teach You and Medication Can’t Give You and Active Treatment of Depression.

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.