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Childhood, Parental Loss and Depression

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

It was once thought that children could not experience depression. Now, there is evidence that very young children not only experience depression but even experience Major Depression.

The purpose of this article is to discuss one possible cause for some children and teenagers to experience depression. This is not meant to be an exhaustive discussion of all the possible causes. The one particular factor that is the focus of this article is the child's experience of loss of the parent.

Increasingly, research studies are showing that parental loss during childhood or adolescence can and often does lead to depression during childhood and into adulthood.

Loss Through Death of a Parent:

The problem is in defining just what is meant by the term "loss." What most immediately comes to mind is the death of one or both parents. There is no question that it is traumatizing for any child or adolescent to sustain such a loss. The repercussions of such a loss are that there is a major impact on the neuronal development in the brain and lasting depression. Other traumas can have similar and worse results. War, earth quakes, child abuse and witnessing parental domestic violence against one another or siblings, all leave their lasting scars in the form of PTSD and depression.

For a very long time adults tended to ignore the emotional well being of children in the event of the death of a parent. Focused on adult concerns and believing that children had no idea of what was really happening, children were left to fend for themselves after an adult death. In addition, the surviving parent was usually wrapped up in their private grief.

Now, it is well established that, when a parent dies, the emotional needs of the child need to be attended to. It is not unusual for children to believe that they are the reason for the disappearance of a parent. With a limited and concrete understanding of death, many children conclude that the parent is gone because they were "naughty" and were being punished.

Worse yet, were those children who were told that the parent " fell asleep and was up in heaven." I knew a few cases where this happened and the child was terrified of going to sleep for fear that they would go to heaven.

Loss Through Parental Depression:

However, there is another type of loss that can have a devastating impact on child's development and that is of the depressed parent.

A parent who is depressed is not able to be emotionally present to meet the needs of a child, even if they are physically parent. Children, acutely aware of everything happening around them, are able to perceive that something is wrong and that Mom or Dad are just not really there.

A healthy parent is usually able to compensate for the one who is depressed by filling in for the needs of the child during the period of depression. However, if for some reason, that parent is not available, either due to travel, divorce, substance abuse or their own depression, the child does not have the opportunity to experience any compensating benefit and feels the full force of emotional abandonment.

Here, too, as with death, the child may feel extreme guilt for the unavailability of the depressed parent.

Studies show that there is a high incidence of children of depressed parents. Of course, genetic or inherited factors cannot be ruled out as factors contributing to childhood and teenage depression. There are also such factors as identifying with the depressed parent, learning the same patterns of behavior that lead to depression as well as the sense of loss or emotional absence of the depressed parent.

Interventions:

The same studies point to the need for early and fast intervention to help young people prevent depression or treat it early on so that it does not become pervasive. Treatment includes such things as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for both parents and children so that both learn the family patterns of automatic or self defeating ways of thinking and are taught to replace those with more realistic ways of thought. This also enables parents to help their children correct their own patterns of automatic thoughts.

It is also thought that the school systems should teach children and teenagers how to identify the symptoms of depression and its causes in order to enable them to get help for themselves as rapidly as possible.

In the event of the death of a parent, it is deemed essential that adults help children with the grieving process so that they make a healthy as possible adjustment to the loss.

If you see your history reflected in this article and you experience depression, it would be a good idea to make use of a mental health provider. In addition, if you know or have children who have sustained a major loss the same would hold for them, particularly as a preventive against future depression.

Your comments and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD