Imagine growing up with a parent who seems too tired to do anything with you, who loses focus while doing the dishes or cooking dinner, a parent who no longer laughs at comedies on television or encourages you when you need it.
This is just one description of the depressed parent, but there are others. Some depressed parents are restless instead of fatigued, and others are hostile instead of withdrawn. Nevertheless, according to the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, there are about 8 million of them who raise the children we see every day in our schools and neighborhoods.
Parental depression has detrimental effects on children. Below are a few ways it can hamper children’s progress, plus a resource that can place depressed parents on the right path.
Delays in cognitive development
As children interact with their environment, parents are needed to facilitate those interactions. This encourages learning. When a child smiles or asks a question, a parent’s responsibility is to respond to that child with a smile and/or gesture and/or answer the question. When a parent suffers from depression, however, the response is often silenced because of low emotions. This shutdown can block children because of their parents’ lack of attention. A report published by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University affirms this, stating, “The difference between a child who grows up in a responsive environment and one who does not, can be the difference between the development of strong or weak brain architecture, which serves as the foundation for the learning, behavior and health that follow.” Therefore, depressed parents may stunt the cognitive development of their children, leading them to fair poorly in school.
When parents are depressed, self-absorption usually leaves little room for attending to the emotional and/or physical needs of their children. Parents who are blue may be less able to discern the sadness or joy experienced by their own children. This can cause emotional neglect. Love, a basic human need and emotional connection, contributes to healthy development in children. Denying children this basic human need can limit their emotional maturity and lead children to have unhealthy emotional relationships with others in the future.
Parental depression can also lead to physical neglect. A depressed parent can easily overlook preparing lunch for a child’s school field trip or seeing to it that a child has on a clean school uniform. Oversights like this cause children to feel unwanted, especially if they compare their appearance and situation with other children who are being cared for.
As reported by the New York University Child Study Center, children of depressed mothers, compared with those of non-depressed mothers, tend to have more behavior problems in school and with peers. Since depression causes parents to neglect their children’s physical and emotional needs, children must get their needs met somewhere else. Thus, they often provoke teachers, peers or others in their circle of influence in order to provide it. Therefore, the child in class who constantly hollers out may be doing so because that is the only way he knows how to get attention. And the student who insists on talking about her classmate’s mom may be doing so only because she feels insecure about her own parent’s lack of care. Therefore, the effects of parental depression can spiral into other consequences that further take away from the advancement of children.
Fortunately, depression can be treated with the help of medicine, support and/or knowledgeable counselors. Although affordable quality mental health care has been a concern for underserved areas on Chicago’s West Side, there are agencies that provide mental health services on a sliding-fee scale, determined by your income.
A valuable resource to utilize if you or someone you know needs mental health care is the Department of Human Services’ website. By going to www.dhs.state.il.us and clicking on “mental health,” you can access the department’s mental health locator. Type in your zip code and you will find a list of community mental health centers in your area.
Until then, here’s to better health for you and your child!
China Hill is a curriculum writer for KIPP Ascend Charter School on the West Side.