Helping Your Child Cope When Your Co-parent has Mental Health Problems

Helping Your Child Cope When Your Co-parent has Mental Health Problems

What if your co-parent is mentally ill? Or has mental health problem? Or is very depressed?

That’s an issue for Clarice, whose former husband is very depressed. She said that he has been diagnosed with severe depression and is taking medication as well as seeing a therapist.

The problem, Clarice said, is that he cannot hide his symptoms when he comes to visit their four-year-old daughter each week. “During his visits with our daughter, he is extremely depressed and at times doesn’t even talk to or interact with our daughter,” she  said.

“Our daughter loves him and looks forward to his visits,” Clarice said, “but he is anything but the kind of warm, loving father that I would like him to be.”

John, on the other hand, has a co-parent who has been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. His former wife, Lynn, is frequently depressed and lethargic, so when Lynn visits with their five-year-old son, John tries to plan things he knows his son will enjoy, such as going for ice cream, playing at the park, or going to a swimming pool.

“I give them a certain amount of alone time,” John said, “because I want them to learn to get along with each other and to have fun. Although I know Lynn loves our son, she looks and acts depressed and sometimes cries during the visits for no particular reason.”

Both John and Clarice feel badly for their children who do not understand why their other parent is sad and withdrawn. But both also indicate they are unsure how to handle their child’s confusion about why their parent is sad. And both Clarice and John worry about the impact of the depression and constant sadness on their young child.

John has dealt with it by telling his son that “Mommy’s sad because she misses you when she leaves.” Clarice has told her daughter that “Daddy doesn’t like to be sad, but he can’t help it.”

Both wonder if there are better explanations or different things they can say to their child to help them understand their parent’s emotions.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about nine percent of adults in this country are depressed, with about three to four percent seriously depressed. That suggests that many co-parents and their children have to cope with a depressed mom or dad.

When it is the non-custodial parent who is depressed and that depressed person only sees the child for a few hours a week or a month, the parental depression is unlikely to have a major impact on the child’s adjustment. The basic reason for this is that living with a healthy, non-depressed parent serves as a counter-balance to the depressed parent.

However, a parent’s depression or other mental health symptoms may mean that he or she is unable to plan and carry out the kinds of parenting time visits either they – or you—would like them to have with your child. It may be very much in your child’s best interest to do what John does and that is to plan activities for their co-parent’s parenting time.

Although you may want to provide your child with an explanation for their symptoms, that poses some problems when your child is four or five or younger. It is important to keep in mind that young children tend to see themselves as responsible for what goes on around them, therefore, he or she may blame themselves for a parent’s depression or withdrawal.

Whatever explanation you offer to your child, it must use language that is age-appropriate. For instance, you could say to a four-year-old: “Mommy gets sad a lot and nobody causes it. That is the way she is, but she is talking to a special person about trying to not be so sad.”

Also, you should not place your child in the position of being responsible for cheering their parent up. But you can speak for both of you in talking about the other parent: “We both feel sorry that daddy is so sad and we hope he will not be so sad in the future, don’t we?”

As the healthy parent, you can keep in mind the good things about your child’s other parent. That is that he or she loves your child, that despite mental health problems, they still come to visit, and that, to the best of their ability, they do try to make the visits pleasant.