Parenting with depression is hard. Nobody would refute that — least of all other parents.
Clinical depression is difficult for everyone, but when you have depression and are only taking care of yourself, it’s a far different scenario and set of problems than when you have a dependent to worry about.
Major life events happen, and parents may struggle to take care of their children until the very last bit of hope leaves their system, but it doesn’t have to come to that. In fact, taking care of yourself might be just as important for the health and wellbeing of your child — especially in the long run.
Whether you’re a parent struggling with depression, or a spouse of a parent struggling with depression, there are things you can do for yourself or your partner to support better mental health, and take better care of the kids in the process. It starts with acknowledging that you’re important too.
Below are four key tips for parenting with depression — as well as other info on why treating that depression matters.
The mental health of a parent is important to a child for reasons they likely neither understand, nor can articulate — because they’re not old enough to understand how a parent’s mental health affects them.
But as adults, we are definitely old enough to hear the truth. And the truth may be difficult to hear for parents who have been struggling in silence.
Studies show that a parent’s mental health and depressive symptoms share a critical link with depression in their children — meaning that if you’re depressed, you’re more likely to increase the prevalence of depression for your offspring.
The bad news is that changes in parents’ depressive symptoms can predict resulting changes in the mental health of children. Interestingly, the reverse can also be true.
The more severe a parent’s depression, the more severe their children’s depression can be, too. In other words, offspring of parents with depression are at a significantly greater risk of developing depression and other psychiatric disorders according to research — and they’re also likely to deal with cognitive function issues and lifestyle implications, like impaired academic and social function.
Getting mental illness in check is an important part of good parenting, and as shared above, it can have wide-reaching benefits for children who are experiencing depression themselves.
That said, if you’re a depressed parent, understanding how to manage your own depression can help you do the same for your children.
Parents who are more versed in depression symptoms and treatment options, and who are also better able to reduce stigma associated with depression during treatment for their children, are more likely to have a positive impact on their child’s mental health. Interestingly, this benefit can happen even if the parent themself is depressed.
Essentially, depression literacy may help guide both a parent and child through treatment and reduce the negative effects of the parent’s depression on their child’s mental health.
That’s a big deal. It means that, as a parent, you can be depressed, but have the capacity to mitigate how that affects your parenting behaviors — just by learning more about parenting with depression. (And you’re doing that right now: Nice job.)
Parenting with moderate depression or major depression is a difficult challenge, and there are many important reminders you’ll need to give yourself daily to build a protective barrier between your depressive symptoms and your children. Here are some basic tips to help protect and improve your family’s mental health:
More than anything, blaming yourself or feeling guilty is going to be a waste of energy, and put on a very unpleasant (and potentially traumatizing) show for your kids. Set the right example: Be forgiving and loving of yourself. If you can’t love yourself, how will your child learn to love themselves? You can check out our easy meals for when you're depressed for some extra help.
There are countless studies showing that getting professional help works comparative wonders for depression as opposed to suffering alone. But more importantly, getting help publicly and honestly shows your children that there isn’t a stigma to mental health care, and that it’s okay to ask for help when you need it.
Research shows that depression medication and intervention options were directly correlated with the improved health of interactions between mothers and infants. That’s reason enough to take the next step.
Sometimes, in the clutches of a major depressive episode, you may lose hope or focus or may want to abandon treatment because you simply lack the energy. We get it.
Like Homer Simpson at work, it’s best to remind yourself that you have a greater purpose in this. You’re not just getting treatment for yourself. You’re doing it for those around you, especially your kids.
While being open and honest about depression with your older kids is important, it’s also important to keep your depressive symptoms out of their lives (no matter their age). Children are impacted by stress and anxiety disorders, and depression both in the womb and out of it.
It’s impossible to hide everything from kids, but protecting them from your daily moods and negativity (which is a real challenge) will have a profoundly positive impact on their overall mental health. It’s okay for them to understand depression — it’s not okay for them to live with its harmful effects.
Managing your depression effectively and with professional support is what will have the most impact on your own mental health, and that of your children.
The good news here is that, as a parent, your ability to get treatment and heal can likewise impact your child’s depression — for the better.
Parents who receive mental health treatment for depression and anxiety and ultimately learn to cope with their depression are more likely to foster the same development, growth and improvement in their children.
In studies, parents who showed signs of being in remission (they were no longer considered to be in the midst of a major depressive episode) were linked with better mental health in their children.
It’s unclear whether this is due to mimicking behaviors versus newfound ways of supporting a depressed person. In other words, it’s unclear whether kids get better from learning by example or because parents become better at offering the right kinds of support.
But there’s even more good news in that it doesn’t necessarily take remission to positively impact your child’s health.
Treatment for depression is an important part of your future — and your children’s future, too.
Mental health services are available to both of you, and if you’re already seeing signs of depression in your child, it may be time to get them treatment for depression before things become much worse.
As a parent, it’s important to remember that your obligation is equally weighted to take care of yourself. Mothers and fathers may sacrifice to make their children’s lives better, but this is not a sacrifice that make’s anyone’s life better. Get help.
Contacting a mental health professional is your best first step, and they may prescribe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (also called SSRIs) to regulate the serotonin levels in your brain and thereby moderate the effects of your mood disorder.
A healthcare provider may also recommend cognitive therapeutic practices including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which can help you take control of the thought patterns that make your depression hard to cope with.
You can learn these therapeutic techniques and help your children learn them, too.
There may be other treatment options offered for your depression. Studies show things like exercise can be as effective as medication in some ways, and everyone could benefit from a bit more attention to their physical health.
If you’re ready to make parenting with depression easier — for yourself or your kids — consider taking the first step now with online therapy.
Nobody has ever said parenting is easy, but getting depression treatment? That’s very easy. Do it now, for everyone you love.
Dr. Vicky Davis is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over 20 years of experience in clinical practice, leadership and education.
Dr. Davis' expertise include direct patient care and many years working in clinical research to bring evidence-based care to patients and their families.
She is also an active member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners.