Living with a parent suffering from depression can be confusing, lonely and even a little bit scary. According to a study published in the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, a child’s risk for emotional or behavioural problems is greater if the mother, rather than the father, is depressed or has emotional problems. So, how does a child tackle these effects?
Dr Deepa Sankar, a clinical psychologist based in Dubai, states that there are several ways to intervene. Programmes aimed at reducing disruptions amongst the family is one such avenue that can be explored.
“Knowing that parental depression is not the fault of the child, getting on with one’s life and writing in a journal are effective ways of dealing,” she said.
Knowing what their parent is going through can help. Dr Sankar encourages children to seek help, either through professional counselling or by talking to a care giver informally.
Children should help the parent initiate and engage in some activities and help around the house. Activity makes depressed patients feel better and less tired. They should also spend time talking to the depressed parent and help younger siblings understand the situation.
She said: “Alternate caregivers have to be provided to younger children, such as extended family members, friends or a nanny. They are essential in order to provide relief to the mother and to ensure the stimulating, nurturing and responsive interaction needed by a young child to thrive and develop.”
Depression is likely to interfere with the ability to provide responsive parenting and the effect of maternal depression on the child varies depending on various factors, such as severity of the depression and the child’s age, states Dr Sankar.
Preschoolers tend to mirror their mother’s depressive symptoms, such as lethargy and sadness, according to a study published by Infant Mental Health Promotion (IMHP), a Canada-based non-profit organisation. Whereas older children might face difficulties in emotional regulation, resort to substance abuse or even suffer from depression themselves.
Additionally, with the mother’s depressive symptoms, she would be more withdrawn and ineffective in parenting. In some severe cases, mothers will stop showering or doing household chores, leaving a child feeling responsible for the home and younger siblings.
So, what can a mother do to help herself and her child?
Farah Dahabi, a clinical social worker based in Dubai, advised mothers to take time out for themselves, in which they felt cared for. It is also very important for them to know that their state is not their fault.
Dahabi said: “Experiencing depression does not mean that you are a bad mum, nor is it a reflection of you as a woman – it is a condition that requires treatment and care. Share your experience with your children and loved ones. It is important that they understand that depression is a common yet serious medical condition.”
She urged women with depression to do moderate aerobic exercise, as it temporarily alleviates depressive symptoms. “It is important to seek professional support,” she added.