Depressed parents: Why their kids feel bad too

It Takes a Worried Man by Randen Pederson Misery loves company. It may be a cliché, but when a parent becomes depressed, it can have ripple effects through the family, interfering with the marriage and with parenting. It makes sense that the sleep problems, fatigue, guilt, sadness, and loss of pleasure that can accompany depression would have an impact on parenting. But how does a parent's depression affect his or her children?

Aaron Rakow and his colleagues examined the link between parental depression and their kids' internalizing problems in a study published in the current issue of the Journal of Family Psychology. Internalizing refers to sadness, worry, and social withdrawal, or other symptoms of anxiety or depression. The examiners recruited parents from a program designed to reduce the risk of mental health problems in the children of parents who had experienced a Major Depressive Episode. How was children's mental health linked to parental depression?

Unsurprisingly, parental depression was linked to internalizing problems (but not to externalizing problems such as aggression or rule-breaking). But Rakow and his colleagues examined the results in more detail and found that the reason for the depression-internalizing link was guilt. When the researchers included "parental guilt induction" in their analysis, it accounted for the link between depression and elevated levels of sadness, anxiety, or withdrawal in their kids. Their definition of the way in which parents attempt to make their children feel guilty was interesting:

[Guilt induction is] the degree to which the parent achieved goals or attempted to control or change the behavior or opinions of the child by means of contingent complaints, manipulation, or revealing needs or wants in a whiny and blaming manner. These expressions convey the sense that the parent's life is made worse by something the child does (e.g., the message is given that if the child does not behave as requested, the parent will be distress [sic] or mistreated). [emphasis added]

This behaviour is not hard to understand - depressed people typically have a negative view of themselves and others, so it it makes sense that they might convey that their children are inconveniencing them or affecting their lives in a negative way. Rakow surmised that depressed parents might use strategies with "short-term, low effort" goals, and blame their mood on their children. It's important to note, though, that inappropriate or exaggerated guilt is a symptom of depression, so it's possible that guilt-induction could have a long-term negative impact.

This was a small study that did not follow families over time, so the conclusions that can be drawn are limited. It suggests, however, that the impact of parental depression on the parent-child relationship might have significant repercussions for child adjustment. Depressed or not, it's worth being aware of the messages we convey to our kids: do we blame them for our mood, or make our affection contingent on their compliance? These behaviours might get them to comply in the short-term, but they could also have negative consequences over the longer term.

Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only, and are not intended to replace professional or medical advice. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor.