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The Informed Parent

How Parental Depression Affects Children

by Peter W. Welty, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Jan. 20, 2003

Many researchers have been looking at the effect of depression as it moves from parents to children. There have been numerous studies evaluating the effect of depressed parents’ behaviors on their children. Little research, however, has been done on children’s interactions and responses to their parents’ normal moods and behaviors. A group of researchers examined children’s behaviors and responses to their parents’ low moods.

There have been a number of reports on the increased rate of emotional problems in children of depressed parents. These children have been found to show emotional over-involvement, unrealistic feelings of guilt, withdrawal, and avoidance behaviors. Parental depression is not often talked about in families. This also may be true of parental “low moods”. Frequently, children may not always be able to recognize their parents’ low moods, and their own responses.

The process that children use to respond to their parents’ low moods generally reflect their own psychological well being. Anxious children tend to be more anxious and feel inappropriately worried and guilty. They identify with their parents’ low moods. Depressed children might withdraw from their parents. Children who are aggressive and antisocial tend to clash with the melancholy parent and be more oppositional. There have been some studies that show children of depressed parents are less adaptive to new situations. They demonstrate poorer coping skills.

This particular study examined the responses of 990 twelve-year-old children to their parents’ low, sad or unhappy moods. These subjects were given a questionnaire asking what they do when their mother felt low or down. The identical questionnaire was asked regarding their father. The questionnaire was presented in both multiple choice and open-ended forms.

The children’s responses tended to fall into four categories. The first group was called the INDIFFERENCE GROUP. These children scored significantly different from the other groups in that they registered higher on never perceiving both of their parents in a low mood. They also scored low on experiencing empathy towards both parents, feeling down themselves, or on cheering up their mothers.

Cluster two children were called the ACTIVE EMPATHY GROUP. They received higher scores that the others when it came to cheering up and feeling empathy for both their mothers and their fathers. They fell between high and low responses in feeling down when their mothers were unhappy, and in seeking help when their fathers were unhappy.

Cluster three children were called the EMOTIONAL OVER-INVOLVEMENT GROUP. They differed from the other groups in that they scored more highly on feeling scared, angry and guilty. They felt down themselves when their mothers and fathers were unhappy. They scored higher more than the others in seeking help for their parents.

Cluster four children were called the AVOIDANCE GROUP. They scored high on their inability to report what they felt and did. They also tended to avoid getting involved, remained unaffected, and neglected to cheer up their unhappy fathers.

It appeared that more girls were in the EMOTIONAL OVER-INVOLVEMENT GROUP, and more boys were in the AVOIDANCE GROUP. Additionally, girls tended to become more depressed and anxious, while boys became more aggressive and oppositional when their parents were feeling low or down.

This study showed what parents have known all along--that children are sensitive members of the family. They generally feel for their parents, and try to alleviate their sadness and suffering. About two-thirds of the children tried to cheer up their mothers, and about half tried to cheer up their fathers. The researchers said they were often quite touched by the children’s responses to their parents’ low moods. “I make her a cup of coffee.” “I ask her out for a walk.” “I start talking to him about cars.” “I ask him--what is the matter?”

In summary, it seems that the researchers found two seemingly opposite responses in children to their parents’ low mood. One response is characterized by involvement and the other is by noninvolvement. The development of empathy--the capacity to feel for and alleviate the discomfort in others--is an important fundamental building block for positive growth and development. Empathy for others allows children to recognize their own emotional responses, and gives them an opportunity to distinguish their own experiences from those of their parent. This is a skill that is beneficial to them in the ups and downs of ordinary family life and gives them a good foundation for interacting with others in the future.

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