Does Your Child Think Your Depression Is Their Fault?

“It’s my fault mom gets sad.”

Even if you don’t say they’re at fault or give your children a reason to have thoughts like this, they may blame themselves for your depression. And if they do, they’re more likely to suffer from their own depression and anxiety, say researchers from Southern Methodist University (SMU).

Moms with depression may have difficulty getting out of bed, playing with their kids, keeping up routines, or coping with their children’s feelings and behaviors. Children don’t have perspective to know these symptoms aren’t their fault. The SMU researchers offered two possible explanations for the link between mom’s sadness and children’s mental health issues:

  • Children spend a lot of time thinking about their mother’s symptoms, and rumination is tied to depression and anxiety.
  • Children try to fix the problem and cannot because they’ve mistaken the true cause, which leads to feelings of failure, low self-esteem, and helplessness.

Published in the Journal of Family Psychology, the findings are based on surveys of 129 mothers with depression symptoms and their children, who were around 13 years old. Studies haven’t yet explored whether children blame themselves for depression symptoms in dads.

How You Can Help

If you’re concerned that your children may blame themselves for your depression, opening the lines of communication can help. Here are a few things you can do to help them understand:

Listen.

Pay close attention to comments your children make and how they react to your moods. Do they apologize a lot? Are they often angry or defensive? Do they seem worried about you? Also, consider asking their teacher what they see in the classroom.

Educate.

Depression can be hard for children to understand because it’s invisible to them. Use depression episodes as an opportunity to talk to your kids about depression in an age-appropriate way. If depression makes this impossible for you, ask a trusted family member or therapist to help educate your kids about mental health. Here are some important steps:

  • If you have a family history of mental health issues, explain that mental illness has a genetic component. Your children aren’t destined to develop a mental health disorder but it’s possible they could, so they should be armed with facts and an ability to ask for help.
  • Explain your needs. Perhaps you need some time away when you’re depressed or you need to attend therapy or support groups more often. Helping them understand your symptoms and needs can bring some predictability to confusing behaviors. Describe what will happen when you need a break, and encourage your kids to ask questions.
  • Calm their fears by reassuring them that you’re taking steps to manage your depression.
  • Talk about mental health more than once. Also explain more than once that your depression is not their fault, and it is not their responsibility to fix it. Depression is a condition that affects the brain, changing how you feel, think, and act. It’s fairly common and can be managed with treatment.
  • Reassure your children often, with words and actions, that you love them. Even if you get angry, withdrawn, or say things that are hurtful at times, your depression will never take away your love for your children.

Maintain Routines.

It can be difficult to keep up daily routines when you’re depressed, but children thrive when their lives are consistent and predictable. Plan family mealtimes, game nights, and other routines. If your symptoms prevent you from sticking with the plan, ask a loved one to help.

Get Help.

If you aren’t receiving treatment for your depression, talk with your doctor or therapist. Helping yourself puts you in the best position to help your children. You may also want to consider treatment for your child. Children with depressed parents may benefit from therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy that focuses on replacing negative thoughts with more realistic ones.

About eight percent of teens suffer from depression. The symptoms of depression in children can vary from one child to the next. They can also vary depending on the time, situation and setting. With so many emotional changes happening in adolescence, depression is often overlooked in teens. Look for signs like:

  • Angry or irritable behavior, or acting out
  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits or appearance
  • Continuous feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or guilt
  • Withdrawing from friends, hobbies, or interests
  • Low energy
  • Excessive crying
  • Complaints about headaches, stomach aches or other physical ailments without a clear cause
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Poor performance or loss of interest in school
  • Use of drugs or alcohol
  • Thoughts about suicide

Depression isn’t a shameful secret, but it can seem like one if you don’t talk about it. Your children will try to make sense of what’s happening, so give them accurate information rather than letting them come up with their own explanation. You can help prevent them from blaming themselves and reduce the chances that they’ll face the same struggles when they’re older.