Depression never happens in a vacuum. Like a ripple in the water, a parent’s illness can’t help but affect her offspring.
Different studies have documented how depression in a new mother clearly affects her interactions with her baby or toddler. Depressed mothers are more withdrawn, less responsive to their infant’s signals. “Their facial expressions and displays of emotion [are] more muted or flat, and their voices [are] monotone,” explains Ruta Nonacs in “A Deeper Shade of Blue.” “They [remain] disengaged and [do] little to support their child’s activities or exploration of the environment.”
A mother’s depression also affects grade-schoolers and adolescents.
When parents fail to meet the needs of the people under their care, some kids begin to act out, have difficulty with schoolwork, become hyperactive. A sizable percentage start to isolate and feel depressed themselves.
I was one of the latter group when my mother went through a severe depression after my dad left the house. I was in fifth grade. I wish someone would have sat me down for a talk and explained what was going on. Because I was certainly confused.
So I’ve compiled a list of things I wish I would have been told. Maybe you or someone you know is a parent struggling with depression and doesn’t know how to explain it to your child. I hope these tips help.
1. Your mom or dad has an illness.
There you have it. An honest, straight-forward explanation. You don’t need to get into all the parts of the brain: “This, here, is the hypothalamus. It’s confused. So is the Hippocampus—it’s not a campus for hippos, though!” All you need to say is that the brain isn’t operating right. The messages that need to be received are being blocked—by a bunch of linebackers that don’t want the football to go into the goal. And that’s creating a lot of sadness and crying. It’s weird because you can’t see it, like a broken leg. But it’s very real.
2. You are not to blame.
God, I wish someone had told me this when my mom was depressed. Because I was utterly convinced I was to blame. I must have said something or done something terrible that upset her. I spent hours trying to solve the mystery. And I felt horribly guilty. It’s very easy for a child to feel guilty about a parent’s depression when no one explains to her why her mom or dad is crying so much. I mean, a kid wants nothing more than to please a parent. He knows that when he does something good, his dad smiles. So when the dad is distraught, that, too, must be related to something the kid did. But it’s not!
3. Don’t take it personally.
This one is related to the last point, but different. Typically, when women are depressed they are weepy and moody. When men are depressed, they are quick-tempered and angry. Both say things they don’t mean. But a kid doesn’t know that. All they hear are the words, and the angry tone of the words, and they take both personally—again, as though they are the object of distress in the parent’s life. A child has a better shot of not becoming depressed herself if someone, maybe another relative or a caregiver, can explain to the child that the mom or dad may say things while he or she has this illness that he or she doesn’t mean … that it’s the illness talking, not the parent.
4. You are still loved.
This is really the only thing the kid needs to hear. You are still loved! Absolutely. Phew. Because that is the biggest fear. I know. I’ve been there. I couldn’t help but think that if I was responsible for making my mom so miserable than she must not love me anymore. That doesn’t do great things for a kid’s psyche or nervous system or any system. The mere consolation of knowing she is loved will promote her resiliency and protect her from the blow of depression’s curse.
5. Depression is treatable.
Every kid needs to hear that his parent will not be depressed for the rest of his life, that the dad who used to take him to soccer practice will return one day soon. The adolescent needs to know that depression, unlike other illnesses, is very treatable and has a good success rate. We are not talking about stage-four cancer. The mom who used to volunteer on the field trips? She may be well by the next one.
6. Ask for help.
This is difficult for a kid. They shouldn’t have to ask for help; however, if no one in the family understands depression, they are going to have to. When I had my breakdown, I was lucky enough to have a husband and in-laws that could take my kids out for awhile and explain that mom didn’t feel good. However, when my mom was depressed, I didn’t know where to turn. Since people who are depressed are poor communicators, it is paramount to let the child know that there are other people to turn to until the parent feels better—not only to help with homework, but also to chaperone school functions and so forth. The child needs to learn a very important life skill: to assert one’s needs until he gets the help he needs.