We’ve all heard the saying, “If mom’s unhappy, everyone’s unhappy.” I think it’s a little unfair to moms, but it’s meant as a playful way of saying what most of us have experienced at some point: Moms set the mood for the family. If mom is unhappy, the whole family feels it. Mothers wield tremendous influence in the home, and for most families this isn’t a problem.
Moms can have ups and downs, which doesn’t seriously interfere with a child’s healthy attachment or development. Yet the same isn’t necessarily true for the children of mothers who suffer from depression. Moms with a history of depression may leave their kids a legacy of depression.
A recent study in the Journal of Family Psychology found that “self-blame plays an important role in the link between a mother’s depressive symptoms and similar symptoms in her children.” Chrystyna D. Kouros, one of the authors of the study and an associate professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University, says, “Children of depressed mothers are 2-3 times more likely to develop depressive symptoms themselves.”
Kids Often Blame Themselves for Their Mom’s Depression
A key factor in why this happens might have to do with a child’s tendency to assume blame. Children who consider themselves at fault whenever their mother is unhappy or angry are at greater risk for relational issues, victimization, and self-harm. These children are likely to believe they’re the cause of their mother’s unhappiness even if they’ve never been told so openly.
Kids are masters at reading a parent’s mood, and they’ll often match it. How many times have we seen our emotions reflected back at us when we snap at our 4-year-old because we’ve had a bad day and he threw his toy because he’s now distressed? Our kids are mirroring not only our emotions but our physiology. Infants can sense when a mother is stressed and will begin to exhibit physical signs of stress such as an increased heart rate and muscle tension.
Children are constantly taking in information about their environment and adjusting accordingly. When kids are young, they might be anxious or fearful when they sense a parent is upset. When they get older and more verbal, they may try to keep the peace by internalizing their problems or assuming the role of cheerleader for the unhappy parent.
Confusion also upsets a child. They know mom is sad a lot, but they don’t know why, and no one talks about it. Understandably, a parent may not want to share her deeply painful struggles with kids, but there’s a lot of ground between sharing too much and providing helpful, age-appropriate answers. Children who are left to figure out mom’s mood on their own and believe they’re at fault for her constant unhappiness risk internalizing her sadness and eventually having their own mental health issues.
Talk to Your Kids About It
To help alleviate this, moms struggling with depression may want to consider opening up to their kids — perhaps sharing what depression is like and then asking them what it’s like when mom is sad. Children will invariably have questions mom can’t answer, and mom isn’t always in a position to answer them. That’s OK.
Maybe she doesn’t know why she feels lousy and isn’t considering how other people feel because her depression is overwhelming, Maybe if she does try to explain why she’s not the mom she wants to be, she ends up spiraling into more self-loathing over her failings.
I want to caution moms against going too far down the “I failed as a mother” path. It does more harm than good. One, it doesn’t serve the mother because it’s not true. Did mom do things wrong? Yes. Did mom do everything wrong? No.
Second, it puts kids who feel responsible for their mother’s depression in the unfair position of having to enthusiastically assure mom she isn’t a bad parent, which may conflict with what they feel, in an effort to cheer her up.
Carrying the weight of a parent’s unhappiness is a heavy burden for a child. It makes sense that children prone to self-blame develop anxiety and depression. They’re internalizing mom’s feelings of hopelessness. This isn’t the legacy we want to leave with our kids.
There Is Hope for Depressed Mothers and Their Kids
The good news for moms with depression is they don’t have to be controlled by despair. There is always hope. The vast majority of these moms dearly love their children and certainly don’t want to damage them. Even better news is that it’s never too late for moms to help their children stop internalizing sadness and stress.
Research shows a mother’s love has the power to transform a child’s emotional development and brain. Children who grew up with nurturing moms had a hippocampus 10 percent larger than that of children who grew up in a non-nurturing home.
This is important because the hippocampus part of the brain is associated with regulating emotions and memory. This tells us love can go a long way for children of depressed mothers. A critical first step, however, must be to get help. Depressed moms should seek a mental health therapist and possibly see their doctor if medication is needed. They can also ensure their kids have someone to talk to.
This confidant doesn’t have to be a professional. It can be a family member or friend. One emotionally supportive, positive adult can make a huge difference for children who are depressed and blame themselves for their mom’s unhappiness. The more frequently an adult can reassure the child he is’t to blame for his mom’s feelings, the more opportunities that child will have to believe it. Eventually, the child may learn to replace self-blame with self-love.