Depression can occur at almost any phase of life. However, it can have a special impact if it occurs in the parent of young children.
Postpartum depression is the best-known form of parental depression. However, depression can strike men and women at other times too. Depression can make it difficult for a parent to develop a close, nurturing attachment to a young child. A depressed parent may be less vigilant about safety issues, or may, on the other hand, worry excessively about the child’s safety. Depressed individuals are more likely to feel hopeless and apathetic about parenting, and thus neglect a child. An irritable, depressed parent might actually abuse a child. Depression can sap the parent of the energy necessary to play with an active child. If the depression leads to alcohol abuse, family problems multiply.
Children of depressed parents are more likely to have behavioral problems, learning difficulties, and peer problems. They are more likely to become depressed themselves. Children may have difficulty understanding cause and effect. Thus, they may blame themselves for the parent’s depression, irritability and withdrawal.
Why might parents become depressed? Some parents are unprepared for the hard work involved in raising a child. They may be cut off from their own extended family and lack good parental role models. Childcare duties may cause the parent to become increasingly socially isolated. With fewer daily adult contacts, the parent has fewer voices to counter his or her depressive thoughts. Parents who work outside the home may also experience stress. The dual demands of work and home may lead to sleep deprivation and exhaustion, leaving him more vulnerable to depression and medical illness.
Some adults have unresolved issues from their own childhood. They may have pushed these memories “under the rug.” Having a child or adolescent may bring back vivid memories from when the parent was that age.
It is important for parents to seek treatment for their depression. Once the depression lifts, they will be able to enjoy their child, bond more closely and empathize with the child’s emotions. The healing process may involve reaching out to friends and family for support.
If the parent enters psychotherapy, it may give him a second chance to resolve issues from his own childhood. The parent may gain a greater understanding of the child’s internal experiences when he examines his own. A parent who has worked through a depression may have special empathy for the child’s sad or anxious moods.