Author: Claudia M. Elsig, MD
Depression is one of the more common conditions that affects 1 in 10 women in the US.1 As many as 17% of women in the EU will experience it at some point in their lifetime.2 Within the framework of a family, the depression of one parent – often the mother – may shift the dynamics of the entire family, as it affects not just the parent but the children as well. That is why it is crucial to recognize the symptoms and address the issue, finding the best possible ways to seek help and heal.
Maternal depression is a risk factor for children. For example, children with a depressed parent are two to four times more likely to experience depression before they reach adulthood. Their social, emotional and cognitive development can be hindered by the mother’s condition. But there is good news: the damage that maternal depression can do is usually reversible, once the mom receives professional help.
Symptoms of parental depression and why they are often ignored
Mothers who experience postpartum depression may feel like they don’t love their babies enough, or that they can’t seem to connect. A mom who is depressed will feel generally unhappy and lethargic, much more so than the usual exhaustion many parents feel, and may be unable to get up and perform the most basic tasks or feel joy.
Other symptoms3 a mom may experience include:
- Loss of interest in normal activities, including activities with her child
- Crying a lot, feeling hopeless
- Irritability and anger
- Lack of energy and sleep disturbances
- Changes in weight or appetite
- Difficulty in making decisions, concentration and remembering things
- Suicidal thoughts or even attempts
This particular type of depression can go on unaddressed because the focus within the family may be on children, not on the parent. Even if a mom is aware of her depression, she may put herself last, prioritizing the care for her little ones.
Depression, however, won’t just go away on its own. It needs treatment, and when families are concerned, it is more so the case.
How does parental depression affect kids
Children require parents to exhibit different skills at various stages of development: sometimes the focus is reassurance and affection; at other times it’s limit-setting and patience. Here’s how it breaks down by age.
As many as a fifth of all new mothers suffer from postpartum depression (PPD).4 Mothers with this type of depression experience an inability to bond with their babies. That means they are less likely to engage and play with their baby, and show their affection, which would otherwise strengthen their connection. One study found that moms with PPD are less likely to talk with their infant or to follow routines, and more likely to stop breastfeeding earlier.5
Babies sense this, and become anxious, crying more or acting withdrawn as a result. Postpartum depression affects the babies’ overall health: researchers have found that they gain weight at a slower rate than their counterparts whose moms are not suffering from depression.6
In addition to the depression symptoms, a mother going through postpartum depression may also:
- Fear that she is not a good mother
- Withdraw from spouse, family and her social circle
- Have difficulty developing a bond with the baby
- Experience thoughts of harming herself or the baby
Young children require a lot of energy: they learn through play and other interactions with the parent. A mom who is depressed may not have the energy to keep up and becomes easily frustrated with the child. Mothers who suffer from depression are less likely to engage in pretend-play, the kind of play that helps reduce the risk of problem behaviors in the child.7 The child’s linguistic skills may also suffer, and they may not be as ready for school.
Children of mothers with depression can become self-sufficient earlier than their counterparts, but that doesn’t mean they are unharmed by their mother’s condition. They may hold a more negative self-image and fall behind academically and socially. In one longitudinal study, children of mothers with chronic-severe depression were at the highest risk of suicidal ideation at age 16. In fact, they were over two times more likely to have suicidal thoughts than those children in the study whose mothers had minimal depression symptoms.8
How do I protect my kids?
Asking the question is an important first step, and the answer is always to seek professional help. Sometimes part of the solution is medication, sometimes therapy, and often a combination.
It is also helpful to ask your spouse, other relatives and adults who regularly see your children to be involved and supportive as the mom seeks professional help.
It is also crucial to tell the children, if they are old enough, that the depression is not caused by their behavior, but rather by a condition for which their mom is going to receive treatment. In addition to alleviating the child’s worries, it opens the door for an honest conversation, where the child can voice their fears and ask their questions.
The CALDA Concept in Treating Maternal Depression
The bottom line is that people with depression have a difficult time when it comes to enjoying life. They don’t sleep or eat well, nor do they take pleasure in daily activities, or feel hope for the future.
We offer an unprecedented treatment program that is tailored for each mother who comes to us.
Relying both on the scientifically proven therapies of traditional Western and Asian medicines, adding holistic concepts and integrative strategies, we make extraordinary strides in the shortest time. When possible, we work without the use of psychiatric drugs, instead dedicating our time and uninterrupted focus on one client to treat the cause of her issue, and not just the symptoms.
Most importantly, we may just be the only such clinic in the world that invites moms to come with their babies.
Our end goal is simple: to help every mother enjoy her motherhood and her life, without losing time to depression.
- “Depression Common in U.S., Women Hit Hardest.” WebMD, www.webmd.com/depression/news/20180213/depression-common-in-us-women-hit-hardest, Reinberg, Steven; February 13, 2018.
- Preventing depression in the WHO European Region. (n.d.). Retrieved May 9, 2022, from https://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/325947/New-Preventing-depression.pdf. 2016.
- Mayo Clinic. 2022. Depression (major depressive disorder) – Symptoms and causes. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/symptoms-causes/syc-20356007.
- S. Rosie Gellman, Rebecca Huston, Hilda Rivera-Santiago; Increasing Postpartum Depression Screening and Intervention in a Pediatric Resident Clinic. PediatricsJuly 2020; 146 (1_MeetingAbstract): 45. 10.1542/peds.146.1MA1.45a (https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article/146/1_MeetingAbstract/45/4056/Increasing-Postpartum-Depression-Screening-and?searchresult=1)
- McLearn KT, Minkovitz CS, Strobino DM, Marks E, Hou W. Maternal depressive symptoms at 2 to 4 months post partum and early parenting practices. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2006 Mar;160(3):279-84. doi: 10.1001/archpedi.160.3.279. PMID: 16520447. (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16520447/)
- Mayo Clinic. 2018. Postpartum Depression. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/postpartum-depression/symptoms-causes/syc-20376617
- Rao, Z., Barker, B., O’Farrelly, C. et al.Maternal anxiety and depression and their associations with mother–child pretend play: a longitudinal observational study. BMC Psychol9, 70 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40359-021-00568-9 (https://bmcpsychology.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40359-021-00568-9)
- Hammerton, Gemma et al. “Association between Maternal Depression Symptoms across the First Eleven Years of Their Child’s Life and Subsequent Offspring Suicidal Ideation.” PloS onevol. 10,7 e0131885. 7 Jul. 2015, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0131885 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4495034/)