While children are often more resilient than we think, it’s easy to rely on their resiliency during a divorce rather than face the possibility that depressed parents have an effect on their children. Divorce is not easy on anyone. Most adults (about 60%) experience a bout of depression post-divorce, especially if they experienced at least one depressive episode prior to separation. Because children are constantly learning how to experience the world through the eyes of their caretakers, it’s no wonder that divorce often leads to childhood depression in adolescents and teens. But how can we tell the difference between feeling down and a genuinely maladjusted child? And how do we prevent a divorce from taking a toll on the mental well-being of children?

The Causes of Childhood Depression

A divorce itself is not usually the main cause of a depressive episode in a child or teenager. Instead, the effects of divorce on parenting style are more likely to be the culprits. First, parents who are unhappy with their own lives and relationships are more likely to have children prone to depression. Other causes include exposure to frequent arguing or fighting, a lack consistency and routine, and emotional reliance on children and adolescents for support from a caretaker. Essentially, an emotionally healthy childhood can prevent childhood depression and a predisposition to lifelong depressive episodes.

For example here are parts of a divorce that can have a negative effect on the emotional resiliency of your children and teenagers:

  • Bad mouthing the other parent or including young children in contentious custody decisions.
  • Exposure to a parent’s depressive episode without modeling healthy ways to overcome the negative emotions.
  • A lack of consistency in schedule and routine due to shared custody.
  • Parents who lean on their children for emotional support during the turmoil of separation.

The Signs of Childhood Depression

Because children naturally sleep longer than adults and are still learning how to cope with a range of emotional responses, it’s easy to miss some of the tell-tale signs that your child might be depressed. However, catching the symptoms early can help parents do a better job of shielding their kids from too much too soon. These signs are not unlike those found in adults, however, since children struggle to hide emotions like an adult, it’s easy to misdiagnosis depression as bad behavior.

  • Anger/Irritability or unusual mood swings with reoccurring bouts of anxiety
  • Excessive sleepiness or lack of energy that prevents them from engaging with their peers
  • A desire to quit previously loved sports, music lessons, or other extracurricular activities
  • A lowered threshold for disappointment, AKA the small let downs of life feel bigger than they are
  • Physical complaints that cannot be diagnosed or cured

Childhood Depression: What it looked like for me

From the age 10-12, I missed a lot of school. Simply waking up and going to school was so overwhelming and anxiety provoking that I would become terribly sick to my stomach nearly every single morning. No doctor could cure the weight loss or constant nausea that I complained about. Many adults in my life assumed I was faking my symptoms in order to get out of going to school and waking up early. However, I am and always have been an avid lover of education. During these days at home, I always finished my homework, read books, and maintained excellent grades but rarely got out of bed. It didn’t matter how much I slept or what types of food I ate, every day the thought of facing my responsibilities and peers crushed my willpower. I was known for having a short fuse, crying over absolutely everything, and always on the edge of an anxiety attack. From the outside, it looked like I was just difficult. My parents often chalked it up to hormones and puberty. But as an adult who has experienced depression, I can look back and know without a doubt that I was experiencing childhood depression.

What can you do for a depressed child?

It is easier to dismiss a child for being poorly behaved than it is to take responsibility for your actions as a parent.
It is easier to dismiss a child for being poorly behaved than it is to take responsibility for your actions as a parent. Children who are allowed to be imperfect and given the benefit of the doubt time after time grow up to be well-adjusted adults with a lower risk of depression. If you, as a parent, are experiencing a depressive episode during a divorce, it’s very likely that your children are too. Kids are little mirrors and the best thing you can do for yourself and your child is to model healthy behavior even if you don’t feel like it. Routine including a set meal schedule, exercise, and time for talking through painful emotions is proven to break the cycle of depression. While we cannot overcome our genetics, we can use all the resources available to us to model emotional health for the next generation.

If you are an adult child of divorce who experienced childhood depression, there is help for you to overcome those negative memories and make a change in your own depressive cycles. I urge you whether you’ve already had children of your own or not, to face those demons down for the wellbeing of your children, your partner, and yourself. Stay tuned for information on different therapies that have helped our family.