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Both John and Clarice feel badly for their children who do not understand why their other parent is sad and withdrawn.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.

Does Mother’s Depression Affect Children?

Does Mother’s Depression Affect Children?

If you are depressed during the early years of your child’s life, what impact will this have on your child?

For example, suppose you suffered from postpartum depression right after giving birth to your child, what effect would this have on your child’s development? Or, if you have bouts of depression while your child is in her formative years, will there be long-range consequences for your child?

These are important questions because depression is such a prevalent condition for adults in this country. According to the National Institute of Mental Health nearly 10 percent of all adults in the U.S. experience a mood disorder, and almost seven percent of adults suffer from serious depression.

Furthermore, four out of five women will experience a mild depression, often referred to as the “baby blues.” However, somewhere between 10 and 17 percent of all mothers will have the more serious postpartum depression, which could lead to a mood disorder that might last months – or even years.

Given these statistics, the question of how a parent’s depression will impact a child’s future is an important one. Studies dating back over the past thirty years show remarkably clear and consistent results: Children who live with a chronically depressed mother are at risk for many adverse effects. While it is likely that similar results would be shown if men and their depression was studied more, the fact is that men have been the subjects of fewer research studies related to parental depression and the outcomes for children.

However, it is clear that if mothers fail to receive treatment for their depression, babies and older children will suffer consequences. The major risks infants and children face if they live with a depressed mother include higher stress levels, abnormal reflexes, withdrawal, irritability, decreased vocalization, lower activity level, attachment problems, and depressed emotional expression.

The consequences of being around a depressed mother begin to appear within the first year of life. For instance, some babies whose mothers were depressed for the first six months of their life showed growth delays by their first birthdays. But the consequences of being around a depressed parent seem to be present even years later.

A study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry looked at longitudinal studies related to living with parents with mood disorders. This research found that by the age of 20 a child has a 40 percent higher risk of experiencing a major depression themselves. And as they are growing up, children of depressed parents have more trouble in general functioning, increased guilt, and greater problems getting along with others.

Another study, published in 2006 in the American Journal of Psychiatry reported on comparisons between children who had depressed parents versus children growing up with non-depressed parents. Following children for 20 years, it was found that children of depressed parents had higher rates of anxiety disorders, major depression, and substance abuse problems than did children of non-depressed parents.

But a newer study helps to refine these results somewhat better. Looking at children’s risk for depression, this study, published in the journal Psychological Science, reports that children with depressed parents get more stressed out more easily than children with healthy parents. But these findings were dependent on one thing – how negative the depressed parents were to their child.  The researchers from the University of Maryland and Stony Brook University found that kids who showed the most stress were those whose mothers were depressed at some point in the child’s first three years of life and whose parents were hostile when playing with their children.

While these findings only apply to stress, it is known that stress is a risk factor for depression. But if a parent is depressed and reacts in an irritated, hostile, and negative way to their child, that child is seemingly at risk for their own depression.

The results of the continually cumulating findings have very broad implications for both mothers and fathers. If you have children, and if you are depressed, failure to receive effective treatment is likely to result in long-term consequences for your children. These consequences may appear as early as the first year of life, but could continue on into adulthood.