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The Serious Effects of Depression on Parenting
We all get blue from time to time, whether we’re discouraged about a job we didn’t get or sad about a troubled marriage. But sometimes those blues turn into something more; sometimes they turn into the black cloud that is clinical depression. If you’re already struggling with depression, you know how it affects your life every day. But what about the lives of your children? Experts estimate that each year more than 7 million parents live with depression, affecting about 15 million American kids . Let’s take a closer look at how your depression may be impacting your children:
Infants – If you have an infant, you may think he or she won’t notice if you’re feeling depressed. After all, babies don’t do much except eat, sleep, and poop. But the reality is that bonding- the emotional connection that sets the stage for normal social development -is critical during the first months of a child’s life. Depressed parents are less likely to interact in all those crucial bond-building ways: playing, talking, singing, etc. In some babies that creates the potential for social issues later in childhood.
Toddlers & Preschoolers – The brains of toddlers and preschoolers are like super-absorbent sponges, taking in everything about the world around them. In fact, if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a curious child’s questions, you know exactly how their probing minds work. So it’s no surprise that even toddler and preschool kids often sense that something is “wrong” with mom. But research also reveals that moms with chronic depression symptoms are less likely to play with their children or provide them with needed support. Depressed mothers are also less likely to set age-appropriate limits than those without depression.
School-aged Children – Your symptoms of depression can have long-lasting consequences for your school-aged child. If your child feels rejected by you when you’re depressed, he or she may react negatively to you in turn, making your depression even worse. It’s an ugly cycle that will make it even harder for you to set the limits kids in this age group need for healthy development.
If your depressive symptoms are serious enough, an older child might even start to take on a parenting role by helping younger siblings prepare for school or making sure you eat breakfast every morning. If left untreated, your depression can force your children to grow up too fast, robbing them of time to play with friends or enjoy extracurricular activities.
Depression can harm your kids’ safety.
No matter what the age of your child, depression can lead to inadvertent harm – usually due to neglect – on your part. For example, a mom mired in depression might not be able to properly assess her child’s need for medical attention, such as when he has a soaring fever or other symptoms of a serious illness. A toddler could get hurt while playing because her depressed parent was unable to get out of bed that day. One study found that children with depressed mothers were more likely to visit the emergency room than those with non-depressed moms .
Tips for protecting children from parental depression
People of any age or gender can learn to manage their depression symptoms and live a full life-and that includes busy moms as well. Here are tips for managing the mental illness so you can be the better parent you want to be:
Develop a treatment plan that works for your family. If you’re not already working with a mental health professional, now is the time to see one. Talk with your doctor or therapist about the concerns you have for yourself and your children. Together you can establish a plan that helps you get healthier so you can be a more engaged parent. Treatment options might include psychotherapy, support groups, or medications. The plan might also include support or therapy for your kids.
Be open with your children. Children are far more perceptive than most adults give them credit for. Chances are good that your kids sense something is not quite right. Let them know that you have a sickness, but you’re working to get help for it. It’s also helpful to explain that your illness may cause you to cry easily or have a hard time focusing. Tell your children that your behavior is not their fault, and that you’re taking steps to get well so you can be a better parent.
Let your children live their lives. Making sure your children are able to continue their extracurricular activities is an important way to give them some control over their lives. Make alternative arrangements that support them in their activities when you’re not be able to participate because of your depression. You may need to enlist the help of another parent or a family member. Do whatever you can to ensure your children are living their lives as fully as possible while you work on getting better.
Watch for signs of depression in your children. One of the risk factors for a child developing depression is having a close family member with the disorder. Signs that your little one might be struggling with it include:
- Irritability, anger, or moodiness
- Social withdrawal
- Complaints of aches and pains (e.g. tummy aches) that have no obvious cause
- Increased sensitivity to rejection
- Difficulties sleeping
- Problems with performance in school, sports, or other activities
- Alcohol or drug use
If you notice any signs of depression, seek out a mental health professional who specializes in treating children and adolescents.
Don’t let your depression negatively impact your children.
Depression is a serious disorder, but you can minimize the impact is has on your children. Take the necessary steps to manage your depression and help your children understand it better. Depression will still create challenges for your family, but being proactive will help you get your life back on track so you can be the best parent possible.