Depressed parents impact on their kids
Although most research on parental depression has focused on mothers, newer studies are looking at fathers and finding similar effects for children.

"Depression is just wicked. It takes away the enthusiasm and energy you need to be a good parent. And on top of that, it distorts your thinking," says Diana Barnes, a Tarzana psychotherapist who treats parents with postpartum depression.

Babies clamor for a parent's attention and, when parents don't respond, they'll mimic the flat adult expression they see before them as a way to engage, Barnes notes. "Then a mom will say, ‘The baby doesn't like me' — I hear it all the time. Or they'll see normal infant behavior as ‘difficult' or ‘fussy' and see the baby as a problem child."

Many women with postpartum depression have grappled with mental health problems earlier in life. That was true for 42-year-old Walker Karraa of Sherman Oaks, who had been on and off depression medications for years. She struggled through severe, untreated depression during pregnancy and the first three months with her now 9-year-old son, Ziggy. Then she got treatment and began to improve.

Karraa had a "do over" opportunity with 6-year-old Miles, her daughter, but this time she was receiving treatment — therapy and antidepressants. "I felt normal; it was totally different than the first time. I was able to sleep and eat and experience joy ...

"To this day, I see differences in my kids' personalities. My son is a lot more prone to worry and anxiety. He struggles with big, big feelings. He feels things on a very deep, empathetic level and is so affected by the feelings of others." Ziggy has tested as highly gifted, is well liked and healthy, says Karraa. But she still worries about him. "There is more lightness to Miles, more joy."

Karraa says she still has some rough days. There are times when she needs to adjust her medicine, and often she can't face social encounters, especially crowds in close quarters. Tony Karraa, Walker's husband, takes Miles to ballet class and frequently ferries the youngsters to birthday parties.

Managing the Effects

Both parents openly discuss Walker's depression with their children. "I've started to look at it like diabetes, a medical condition I need to manage," she says, adding that she and her husband emphasize to the kids that they're not to blame for their mother's periodic sadness and that Walker has great doctors helping her. "They've asked, ‘Am I going to get it?' and I tell them, ‘Probably not. But if it happens, people will be there to help you,' " Walker says.

This "we can master things" attitude is the opposite of the helplessness message many kids get from depressed parents, says Kitty Walker, a Santa Monica psychotherapist. "Part of depression is feeling, ‘No matter what I do, I can't make things better.' This is learned helplessness. Kids model on it, and it can program them to become pessimists who feel helpless and eventually depressed themselves."

Not only do children fare better if they are taught not to blame themselves for a parent's depression, they also flourish when caregivers can give them plenty of attention, says Beardslee.

Effects on kids tend to be more damaging if the family is poor, if there's marital conflict or if a depressed mother is the sole parent, according to the federal report. Financial strain can prevent parents from getting treatment, and the other family stressors add to the strain children may feel.

Even when parents are mindful of how their emotional problems may affect children, it can be hard to maintain consistent expectations and discipline as symptoms fluctuate from day to day. "It's important to have this consistency, this sticking to your guns, being firm and loving at the same time," says Beardslee.

Ruth Hollman, 53, of Los Angeles, has struggled against depression most of her life but feels she has her symptoms under reasonably good control now. "I do have bad days, though, and there's no question I'm inconsistent with the kids. On bad days I'll ignore something they're not supposed to be doing. On better days there's a different rule. Of course I'm concerned. I have tremendous worry that they're going to turn out to be not OK kids."

Her 11-year-old son is in therapy because he has trouble controlling impulses and can be defiant about rules at home. He's been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and is improving with medication and therapy. "My younger daughter is just blossoming all over the place, but, still, you worry because you don't want your troubles to harm them."

Gary McMane, the Fontana father who believes his depression has hurt his three kids, feels he avoided inflicting serious harm for years by letting them know he needed more alone time on some days. That worked when their mother lived with the children. But when she left the home five years ago after a 20-year marriage, McMane plunged into a black hole. The kids — 9, 12 and 17 at the time — lived with him. "For days I would lie in bed and cry. They kept trying to console me; they just didn't see this coming. For a couple of months I was just disabled."

McMane took a leave from his job as a social worker and joined a men's therapy group that he credits with gradually bringing him back to mental health. "It ‘parentified' my older daughter, though. She felt she had to take care of the younger kids, and to this day she still kind of feels that way," he says. McMane talks with his children openly about what's happened.

He hopes that sensitive parenting — and seeing how he's turned his life around — will help them in the long run.