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parenting while depressed

Parenting Big Kids When You’re Depressed

By Mir Kamin

The first time I was put on medication for depression, I was 16 years old. This was back in the dark ages (okay; the 80s), too, before SSRIs existed, before your general practitioner would write you a prescription, before kids were routinely medicated, and way before the medical community agreed that some people’s brains are, unfortunately, chemically predisposed to struggle no matter how much exercise or therapy or kale they get.

These days, depression is part of my medical history as well as something I manage daily. I do it with my medication and therapy and various coping strategies, and most of the time I’m fine. Even when I’m not fine, a lifetime at this particular rodeo have brought me to a place where things are manageable. I function, I get things done. I’m not always at my very best, but I do the best I can. This is especially important now that I have kids, and even more important because I have kids who also struggle with anxiety and depression. (Sometimes it’s a heapload of fun around here, I tell you what.)

I not only have to take care of myself and take care of them, I have to make sure my issues don’t damage them, and I have to try to set a good example of how living with this sort of challenge can be handled with as much grace as possible. Kindness, understanding, and personal responsibility can all go a long way towards smoothing over the speed bumps depression lays down in front of us.

DO talk about your depression

There’s a difference between wallowing and talking. The latter doesn’t necessarily include the former, and the attitude that talking about a challenge somehow gives it power or too much importance is, I think, dangerous. Secrecy is where stigma is born. Keep it age appropriate, of course—you don’t tell your little kid anything beyond “Mom’s working on feeling less sad and tired, and the doctor’s giving me some medication to help”—and remember that even teenagers don’t want all the gory details, but be honest if you’re feeling unwell. They can handle it as long as you can, I promise.

DON’T use your depression as an excuse

The two phrases we use in our family are “This is an explanation but not an excuse” and “You can’t control how you feel, but you can control how you act.” If I snap at one of the kids because I’m feeling awful, the explanation may be that I’m feeling crummy, but that doesn’t excuse my poor behavior. I try very hard to apologize right away if something like that happens. This is particularly important when dealing with teens who are convinced that nothing they do is ever their responsibility; if I can’t take full responsibility for my actions, I sure as heck can’t expect the kids to manage it for theirs.

DO take breaks

My patience wears thin when I’m struggling, and I’ve learned that I can’t tolerate as much stress as I would, otherwise. So when it comes to things like a child wanting to argue about a privilege or a consequence when I’m not feeling 100%, I have no problem saying, “You know what? I can’t have this conversation right now. I need to take a break because I don’t want to lose my temper.” One of my kids is better at honoring that request than the other one; when necessary, I have no problem leaving the room (or the house) in order to enforce that separation.

DON’T be a martyr

Parenting is a tough gig under the best of circumstances, and when you’re struggling with depression it can feel overwhelming. Resist the urge to continue doing “everything” because “they need me” if you really need help. Trust me when I tell you that no one wants you to do it all if that’s causing you to unravel. Ask for help. I don’t just mean therapy and meds—that’s a given; get the medical attention you require—but I mean asking your partner to step up, if you have one, or asking family or friends for assistance. Ask your kids to pitch in more, or to otherwise cut you some slack, where appropriate. This is all about degrees. You don’t want to crawl into bed and tell everyone to fend for themselves (if you’ve reached that level of non-functioning, please call your doctor), but you don’t have to do everything yourself when there are other able-bodied humans around, either. Find the happy medium. Families work together, especially when help is needed.

DO let your kids know your depression is not their fault

I’ve seen tons of people talk about how to let younger kids know that your depression has nothing to do with them, to soothe and reassure them that they didn’t cause your difficulties. Guess what! Teenagers—for all their bluster and bravado and sometimes breathtaking self-absorption—have the same worries and fears. As far as I can tell, the only big difference between little kids and big kids here is that little kids tend to become very eager to please when they think they’re the reason you’re not okay, whereas teenagers will simply become even angrier and more uncooperative and rotten because deep down, they’re terrified, and hormones apparently make it very difficult to deal with that in a rational manner. Clarify that you’re unhappy with whatever rule they broke or their disrespectful tone or missing curfew, but that is a separate issue from your depression. It may feel redundant or weird, but they need to hear it. More than once.

DON’T compare

Maybe when I’m struggling I still get up and meet all of my responsibilities, but one of my kids is letting things slide. Even if I thought it was a good idea to say, “Well, I’m dealing with the same issues and yet I manage to get everything done!”, what would that accomplish? Everyone’s journey is different, and a comparison like that is only going to make everyone involved feel even worse. I’m the grown-up in this scenario. What works for me may be beyond what my kids can manage, right now. I can understand and empathize with their challenges without expecting them to handle them exactly the same way I do.

DO highlight the good

No matter how I’m feeling, I love these other people sharing my house more than I can possibly express. When I’m feeling poorly, I try to verbalize gratitude even more, both to remind myself of all the good in my life and to let them know that my issues don’t change how much I love and appreciate them. “Thank you for taking care of the dishes, that was really helpful,” and “I love seeing you get your work done and feel proud of yourself” are simple sorts of observations that can be a balm for everyone. It’s an easy habit to cultivate, and it helps.

The last thing anyone needs when dealing with depression is more reasons to feel guilty. Parenting through depression can be done, so long as you’re managing your condition. Keep taking care of you, and you’ll continue being able to take care of them.

Editor: here is the National Institute of Mental Health’s (NIMH) resource list on getting information and assistance with mental health. If you or a loved one are in crisis and need immediate help tell someone who can help you right away, like your doctor, call 911, go to the emergency room or call the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) to be connected to a trained counselor at a suicide crisis center nearest you.

Published September 17, 2013. Last updated March 12, 2018.
About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • Gail

    September 17, 2013 at 3:53 pm

    The “this is an explanation not an excuse” is such an important one. I had a teacher in high school who we all loved and we all vied for her attention and approval, but she could be really temperamental. She used to tell us things like “I’m in a really bad mood. It’s not your fault, but it might be your problem.” That was such a bad attitude to have for working with teenagers that desperately want your attention and affection. She clearly recognized she took things out on us, but couldn’t be bothered to actually try to stop doing it. I can imagine it would be even worse if it was a parent rather than just a teacher.

  • Rita Arens

    September 17, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    This came at the perfect time for me. I’m not depressed, but I’m an anxious person, and my daughter’s hit nine and started tweening out and waking up crying about her outfits and just generally introducing way more drama than before into our lives. Just this morning we talked about how I didn’t learn to start controlling my moods effectively until I was an adult, and I wanted to help her learn to not let her mood be an excuse for bad behavior like screaming or throwing a tantrum. We had a good talk about it, and she was able to calm herself down. I don’t know in her case if it’s hormones or something more — I’ve never been normal, so I don’t know what normal looks like. Either way, you give good advice, lady.

    • Lucinda

      September 17, 2013 at 8:00 pm

      I can’t speak for Mir, but I do deal with anxiety and 9 was a very tough age for my daughter who is now 12.  She did much of what you described and it escalated until about 3 months after her 10th birthday when it started settling in and now she is delightful.  We did take her to a counselor and that helped a lot.  She said sometimes it was nice to talk to someone who “wasn’t mom”.

  • B

    September 17, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    Thank you for this. Firstly for reassuring us that it can be done (I have a toddler and a newborn and was particularly terrified of it all after a severe bout of prenatal depression) and for the fact that your suggestions are already things my husband and I try to implement. It’s good to know we’re on the right path.

  • Things which suck | Woulda Coulda Shoulda

    September 17, 2013 at 5:51 pm

    […] A thing which (hopefully) does not suck: Me, over at Alpha Mom, reassuring you that you can manage depression and parenting and not ruin everything. […]

  • Heather

    September 17, 2013 at 6:14 pm

    One more reason why I love you. This is such great advice. I too have a child who doesn’t like to grant the breaks and that makes it hard usually at the time when I can’t take Another Hard Thing, but hey, gotta roll with it.

  • RuthWells

    September 17, 2013 at 7:43 pm

    Youre such a smart lady.  And pretty.  Hugs to you.

  • Lucinda

    September 17, 2013 at 7:55 pm

    We have a good friend who has long struggled with severe depression (to the point of some VERY interesting medication reactions).  However, at 44, he still struggles with his responsibility in it all.  My husband and I have him over for dinner weekly and one of the recurring themes is his complaining about life and depression and us reminding him that he needs to take care of himself and not everyone is out to get him.  So yes, we are very familiar with how difficult it can be.  If I thought he would heed this advice (relevant even if you don’t have children), I would have him read it.  It is refreshing to hear someone say the things I frequently want to say to him but can’t always because I don’t struggle in the same way.  So as a supporter of someone with depression, this was very encouraging.  Thank you.

  • Julie

    September 17, 2013 at 8:27 pm

    Mir, will everything be ok? I’ve been on medication for depression/anxiety since I was 18 and now I’m ready to have kids and I’m terrified. I’m terrified I won’t be able to handle tiny, needy bodies on my bad days. I’m terrified I won’t be able to make it to them being old enough to talk to about it. I’m terrified it’ll get so bad I won’t be there when they grow up.

    How did you do it?

    • Mir Kamin

      September 17, 2013 at 11:25 pm

      Oh, Julie, this made my heart hurt. I wish I could tell you the answer, and that there was some sort of magic guarantee available. I think this is a deeply personal decision (obviously). I didn’t start trying to have kids until I’d had a pretty long stretch of stability and felt like I had the tools I needed to stay on top of my issues. But then there was infertility and miscarriage and post-partum depression (twice!)… so… yeah, no guarantees. 

      That said, there have been hard days, obviously. But I always tried to stack the deck around me; I made sure we had a medication plan, I had a therapist, I had people I could call, etc. And 95% of the time, those tiny needy people are my favorite people. (5% of the time, I’d probably be struggling, anyway.)

      You make the best decisions you can with the information and resources you have. Big hugs to you.

  • Brigitte

    September 18, 2013 at 6:46 am

    Wonderful post! I also have no clue what “normal” looks like, temperament-wise, so I fret about my almost-9-year-old DD’s behavior and hope she doesn’t have my issues. If she does, maybe I can go with WWMD (what would Mir do?), a la this post, to guide me. And even if she doesn’t, it’s good advice to help me suck it up and function as a parent (not so much as a housewife, however!). 😉

  • Kristin

    September 18, 2013 at 8:28 am

    That joke about mental illness not running in the family but leisurely taking its time to get to know everyone…so true. Also true is that everyone’s “depression” is different…mine is more of waves of overwhelmingness. The other ecard/funny about having so much to do that I’ll just curl up and take a nap instead…yep, that’s my Depression. Sleep/naps – that’s my signal that things aren’t right. And then it’s a matter of convincing myself that the bare minimum will suffice…baby steps.
    Actually, I really think one of my bigger problems is NOT having my kids do enough. I’ve gotten so relaxed on chores and responsibilities that I have to do everything (or not, as the house indicates)…it’s time to rework the household system as a whole!

  • Susan:)

    September 18, 2013 at 8:12 pm

    This post is timely for me as well. I’ve been struggling with depression for several years, but it has been a lot worse the past few months and I know it affects how I deal with my nieces, who I care for daily. I just had my first therapist visit a couple days ago and I’ve felt so much better the past two days. I have to really try to not react in anger or impatience when the girls aren’t behaving. It’s hard sometimes, but I know I can’t let my feeling bad be taken out on them. I do let them know that sometimes I just don’t feel good or that I am having a hard time being patient, so could they please help me by listening extra well.

  • Nance

    September 29, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    I swear you and I live parallel lives.  I have struggled with anxiety and depression since I was in my early 20’s.  Two bouts of PPD and a child who struggles with anxiety and depression, on top of her other issues.

    I think the worst for me is that I don’t have much of a support systems close to me.  We don’t have family close by, and my husband is gone for half the year due to work (4-6 weeks away, 4 weeks home), so it all falls on me.  

    Now that the kids are older, I do ask them to help more.  Sometimes it is all too much, and I mentally check out for a few days.  I wish I didn’t have to, but this has been a rougher than usual year with the girl-child, and sometimes that weekend of checking out makes me able to get through another week of work, homework, after school activities, various counselor and psychiatrist appointments. 

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