What It’s Like Growing Up With a Depressed Parent

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When your mom or dad is depressed, you have no choice but to grow up fast. Research has shown that kids with a parent suffering from depression usually end up assuming the role of caretaker, sometimes at a very young age. Now, a new qualitative study led by Hanna Van Parys of Ghent University in Belgium takes a deeper look at the experiences of these children, by interviewing 21 young adults who grew up with a depressed mom or dad. 

Here are some excerpts from their stories, which were published online last week in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy:

In the beginning I did not talk about it because I thought, I thought I could not be the one who was burdened by the situation. I’d rather say: ‘It is no big deal’.

I always reassured [my mother] ‘no I’m alright, I’m alright’,. . . whereas I probably was not alright at all at that moment.

 . . .and I told my father that I wanted to help him and that I loved him very much. [. . .] He always said to me ‘you’re the only one I’ve got’, which made me feel even more responsible.

 I fled to my grandmother and she just told me to go back home immediately: ‘you’re gonna take care of my daughter’, that’s what she said. Really, I felt so bad after that. [. . .] And then I just stood there and thought ‘ok then’ and I returned home.

 Over time I found out many details about my mother’s illness, and at that point I also started to resent my father.

 People often tell me how I resemble my mother (physically). And at times when I don’t feel very well myself, then I immediately start to think ‘I’m going to become like my mother’.

 At a certain moment I told myself not to expect anything anymore from my mother. . . . That works. . . . It’s the only thing that is possible.

Many of the young adults Van Parys and her colleagues interviewed said that they rarely thought of their own well-being while they were growing up; everything they did was for the sake of their family. And, oftentimes, that meant keeping silent on how much they were hurting. Van Parys writes that she hopes her work will help bring about new insights into how family therapists can effectively help these children. We do, too.