How to parent well despite battling clinical depression?

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8 useful tips to help Parents cope

Parenting by itself is challenging. But parenting while depressed is a different struggle altogether. It is harder. Being a parent is a full-time role where we are responsible for our child’s physical, material, and emotional comforts. Being depressed does not mean that we cannot provide these comforts to our children. We can. We just need to understand ways to do so despite our emotional struggles. The sooner we seek support for our depression, the easier it will be for us and our family. 

Symptoms of Depression

Clinical depression is diagnosed when a person experiences persistent low mood for an extended time which causes significant impairment in everyday functioning, i.e. when we are unable to go about our usual routine. Or where children are concerned, depression makes us unable to fulfill our parenting responsibilities. Depression occurs because of a combination of risk factors like genetic predisposition, stressful events, personality traits, and biological changes. Women are at high risk for depression during their parenting years. The present COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated this issue and more parents these days are presenting with symptoms of fear, sadness, loss of interest, and sleeplessness.

Depression in parents often manifests in the form of lack of motivation and interest in usual activities, physical distress in the form of low energy, gastric troubles, headaches, and lowered immunity. A difference in thinking style exists which makes the situation worse. For example, for a parent without depression, a child’s fussiness while eating might just be annoying. However, a parent with depression might feel overwhelmed by the same issue and feel guilty for not being able to do their best. Depression may cause parents to blame themselves and feel like a failure, thus aggravating their low mood. They get caught in a vicious cycle of negative thinking, sad mood, and withdrawal from the world. Positive parenting is possible when this vicious cycle is identified and steps are taken to break it, which is what happens when help is sought from a mental health professional.  

Effects of parental depression on children

Depression has been noted to come in the way of positive parenting and is known to significantly affect children. Due to symptoms of depression, parents experience a lack of interest, joy, and are withdrawn or irritable. All of this interferes in providing a nurturing environment, meeting the needs of children, and forming an emotional connection with children. This in turn affects their physical and mental health. It has been noted that children of depressed parents tend to develop anxiety, depression, addiction issues, and other mental health concerns in their later years. The impact on children is more when there are other risk factors present along with parental depression. Factors like poverty, exposure to violence, absent non-depressed parent, fights between couples, stressful environments, etc., tend to affect children in the long run. However, this is not a hopeless situation. Timely help about managing the symptoms of depression in the parent as well as increasing the number of positive experiences for the child can prevent these above-mentioned adverse events from occurring. Seeking help also results in discovering the joy of parenting. 

How can parents with depression cope?

Depression need not be a permanent challenge for parents diagnosed with it. There are many ways to address this situation and also prevent its impact on children. Here are some pointers to help parents going through this rough phase cope better:

  1. Acknowledge your problems. Accept your difficulties faced due to depression. Understand that like physical health, mental health is also an issue to be addressed, and reach out for professional help to deal with it. 
  2. Talk to someone who cares. It helps to discuss the challenges faced during parenting and understand others’ perspectives on how to cope. Talk about the symptoms of depression you are experiencing. Find groups facing similar difficulties either in-person or on social media and connect with them regularly to talk about your feelings and hear about their experiences. 
  3. Seek professional help. Reach out to a psychiatrist to help deal with the symptoms of depression if they are significantly affecting one’s quality of life and everyday functioning. Medications help tide over the difficult phase and bring about a positive change in mood and energy levels. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, do not go off your anti-depressants. Rather reach out to your physician who will prescribe medications tested to be safe. 
  4. Consider psychotherapy. Talking therapies are known to change unhelpful thoughts and personality traits that are fueling depression. Cognitive behavior therapy and other related therapies provide a safe non-judgmental space to vent out one’s thoughts and feelings. The therapist helps in challenging the negative thoughts like ‘I am a bad parent’, ‘I am a total failure at bringing up my children.’ Together the parent and therapist reframe the thoughts to something positive like, ‘Parenting is tough but I am doing my best.’ Therapy sessions thus help break the patterns of depressive thinking and replace them with a more realistic and positive thinking style. 
  5. Educate your children. Depending on the age of your child, talk about your symptoms of depression. Children as young as 4 years old can sense changes in their parent’s mood. Hence it helps to explain your situation in simple terms, ‘Mummy/Daddy has been feeling very sad and needs help to make the sadness go away.’ It is important to make them feel reassured so that they do not take your low moods personally and feel guilty about having caused them. They also need to be frequently reassured that you are taking good care of yourself to prevent them from worrying about you. 
  6. Learn to let go. Depression makes us feel guilty about not being a ‘good parent. It helps to not be hard on ourselves during this phase and learn to acknowledge the best we are doing. Depression also makes us angry and irritable when things do not go our way. In such situations, it helps to forgive ourselves and others for mistakes made. 
  7. Learn to live in the moment. It helps to find joy in small shared moments with your children be it during playtime or mealtime. It is the quality of time that matters for children, much more than quantity. 
  8. Get help for your child. If you observe any emotional and behavioral difficulties in your child, reach out for support. A child psychologist can teach your child how to manage his/her worries and emotions better and work towards making your child resilient. 

This is a prime time for mental health treatment. There is comparatively less stigma these days concerning seeking psychiatric or psychological help for dealing with one’s problems. We should not let depression limit us in any way. If we seek help and work towards breaking free from it, we can experience a good life with our children. 

Parenting is challenging but it can be fulfilling and fun too. Reach out to our team at Cadabam’s for help with managing your challenges of parenting and mood. 

Dr. Nisha Vidyasagar

Clinical Psychologist

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