Sadness can be contagious. If exposed for a long time to a depressed person, we may become depressed ourselves.
Since children are so dependent on their parents, perhaps the greatest contagion of depression occurs in the parent-child relationship.
Some years ago, a group of Yale psychiatric researchers found that children of seriously depressed mothers were nearly three times more likely to develop major depression than children of mothers who had never been depressed. They speculated that this may be due to genetic factors, poor parenting by the depressed parents or general stress in troubled families.
Children from homes in which one or both parents are chronically or seriously depressed are not raised in a happy atmosphere. They may gain the impression that life is sad.
In addition, depressed parents are often unable to fully meet their children's emotional needs. Overwhelmed by their sadness, at times they may be unresponsive to their offspring. As a result, the children may grow up not feeling completely loved.
In my own therapy practice, I've found that these children sense several unspoken messages from their depressed parent. One is, Don't be happier than I am because then I'll feel worse.
Children who believe they've received this message often struggle with depression in their adult lives because they feel guilty if they're happy. It's as if they unconsciously think to themselves, It wouldn't be fair for me to be happier than my parent.
A second message is the opposite of the first. It says, Be happy or successful so I can feel better. By your accomplishments, make up for my deficiencies.
Adult children who have received this impression may be depressed because they've accepted, or given themselves, an impossible task. Since no one can make another person happy, or compensate for his or her own unhappiness, these offspring may feel they've failed their parent.
A third impression received from a depressed parent may be, Don't come to me with your problems, I'm too overwhelmed with my own.
Children who believe this is what a depressed parent is covertly saying often grow up feeling lonely in their families. There may be no one in whom they can confide about their problems.
A fourth message may come from a depressed parent in his or her later years. It says, Stay with me and take care of me. I'll be so unhappy without you.
This message places the children of aging parents in another difficult position. Often, they feel torn between guilt for not responding to their parent or resentment for having to do so.
If you are a parent who is depressed, whatever you can do to relieve your depression will automatically help your children. In fact, I believe that 80 percent of good parenting is insuring your psychological needs are being met, your self-esteem is high and your marriage is strong.
If part of your depression was caused by being reared by a depressed parent, you have to somehow detach from carrying your parent's pain or feeling responsible for fixing it. I'm not asking you not to care or be supportive, however. Instead, I'm suggesting that the only person who can heal another person's depression is that person.
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