Clinical depression is a serious mental health condition that affects every aspect of a person’s life. Not only does depression affect a person’s mind and body, making it hard to even get through the day, but it also puts a strain on their family relationships.
Ultimately, this strain can lead to stress, anxiety, frustration, and in severe cases, even estrangement.
If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with depression, it is important to understand the painful effects family members may experience as they try to understand the diagnosis and provide emotional support.
Knowing what to expect and how to interact are important elements that protect the entire family’s well-being. Here are some ways depression may affect the family including what you can expect and how to cope.
Depression and Families
Depression is often a debilitating mental health disorder that interferes with a person’s ability to manage everyday tasks. But the consequences do not end there. Sometimes depression affects more than just the person struggling with it.
Even family members can be impacted if someone close to them suffers from depression. In fact, a 2016 study published in Issues in Mental Health Nursing found that family members of people with severe depression also experienced significant consequences.
“Family members often experience a combination of burnout, guilt, psychological stress, and anxiety, says Lena Suarez-Angelino, MSW, LCSW, a bilingual mental health therapist. “After a while, it can become extremely difficult to watch a family member go through the ups and downs of depression.”
To help navigate this situation, it is important for family members to understand not only what depression is but also how it can impact the family unit. By becoming educated about the illness as well as partnering with one another you can find the best path to ensure everyone’s well being.
“Reality and knowledge will help everyone recognize the challenges…for each family member including how to first recognize [depression] and then learn how to meet these challenges with kindness and hope,” says Laurie Hollman, PhD, a psychoanalyst specializing in parent-child relationships and an award-winning author.
How Parental Depression Impacts Kids
Growing up with a parent or a caregiver who has depression can take a toll on a young person’s physical, emotional, social, and mental well-being. For instance, social isolation is often a key characteristic of depression, so if a parent is depressed and does not want to interact with others outside of the home, this means the child also may lack important social connections.
Likewise, the parent or caregiver may neglect basic necessities, too, like meal preparation and hygiene as well as emotional support and security. The lack of consistency and predictability can cause stress and uncertainty.
“A parent or caregiver who is depressed also is emotionally absent much of the time and in an unpredictable way,” says Dr. Hollman. “The child will easily feel at fault. When parental support is intermittent it is more confusing than when it is constant. Then the child faces so much uncertainty they get overwhelmed.”
In some situations, children will even take on more responsibility or try to act as a caregiver for the parent. They also may struggle with anxiety, fear, and even guilt.
“For example, a child will fear their depressed parent cannot give them the attention and security they need, [which] may indeed be a reality,” says Dr. Hollman. “The child also may blame themselves for the person’s unavailability and unresponsiveness if they have…mixed feelings toward their parent.”
How a Child or Teen’s Depression Impacts Parents
When a child or teen is depressed, it can be extremely difficult for parents to navigate this situation, especially if they have other children to care for. They often feel torn between making sure the child with depression is cared for while balancing the care of their other children along with their other responsibilities. This tough balancing act alone can create strife, disappointments, guilt, and conflict within the family.
“Siblings, depending on their age, may not understand depression and the impact it can have on the interactions of the family,” says Suarez-Angelino. “Some siblings may question why there is more attention on the child that is experiencing depression. Having open and honest conversations helps bring balance and understanding to the entire family unit.”
In addition to feeling pulled in many directions, parents also can feel overwhelmed, anxious, worried, and afraid when their child or teen is struggling with depression, especially if they have expressed any type of propensity toward suicide or other self-harming behaviors.
“When your child is in emotional pain, as a parent, this is extremely painful and frightening,” Dr. Hollman explains. “You know that your child needs your help more than ever and your anxiety about how to be a ‘good’ parent under these circumstances can easily get in your way of thinking clearly and making carefully planned decisions.”
The first step is understanding what depression is and how it might manifest in different ways in your child. Not only does every young person experience depression differently, but the signs and symptoms of depression in a young person are somewhat different than they are in adults. For instance, kids and teens who are depressed might act out or become irritable.
“It is important to remember that behavior is often the messenger before the words,” explains Dr. Hollman. “Behaviors should not be punished or result in threats and anger but be viewed as distress signals in any form.”
Likewise, parents need to realize that depression is not a character flaw nor is it something that can be fixed by being more optimistic or pretending to be happy. Depression is a mental illness that requires family members to extend compassion, empathy, and understanding.
“Clinical depression is a disease out of the patient’s control, like a physical illness,” says Dr. Hollman. “The patient is not stubborn, undisciplined, or a complainer…Something very real is overcoming their mind and body that progresses and regresses even with treatment.”
How to Cope
Even if only one person in your family has been diagnosed with depression, it is important to consider the entire family’s well-being during the person’s treatment. Be on the lookout for signs that other family members might need support or even intervention as well.
Remember, depression does not occur in isolation and has the ability to impact the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of the entire family. Do not hesitate to reach out for help and support from people you trust as well as mental health professionals.
“Nonjudgmental friends can be excellent providers of needed emotional support for family members,” says Dr. Hollman. “If they have personally experienced their own depression or have helped another with depression, they may have the knowledge and empathy needed as long as their own personal struggles don’t further complicate their advice and availability.”
“Listening at length is most definitely as important as offering quick solutions,” says Dr. Hollman. “Listening helps each person feel less alone in these uncertain waters.”
It’s also important that this communication occurs without blame or judgment. Focus on allowing the person talking to be heard and understood.
“It isn’t helpful for anyone to blame themselves or others under any circumstances—knowledge and empathy are key,” Dr. Hollman explains. “But empathy only comes with knowledge. Otherwise, assumptions take over that diminish the view or the worth of the person.”
When people make false assumptions, use words carelessly, or blame other people it is easy for family members to absorb these things and allow them to contribute to low self-esteem as well as a sense of failure or weakness, she adds.
“We don’t judge someone with the flu because they need rest, take medicine, see their physician, and are assisted while ill,” Dr. Hollman says. “We also don’t see the flu as some kind of testament to their moral character or self-discipline. This kindly attitude is needed for a person with depression, [too].”
Overall, time, patience, empathy, and forgiveness are part of what is needed when coping with a family member’s depression. If these qualities can grow then love and hope will as well, she says.