Over the years I've heard a number of people speak about their parents with sadness and parents speak about their children with disappointment. The children frequently said their parents didn't understand them, and the parents said they didn't understand where they went wrong. In both groups there were some who suffered from depression.
Even seemingly normal families can breed depression. Here are some of the ways:
1. A personality or temperamental misfit. People come in different flavors: introvert or extrovert, active or passive, intellectual or hands-on, those who crave order and routine, and those who thrive on spontaneity. An introverted parent who wants and needs peace and quiet may feel that an extroverted child "is driving me crazy." Likewise, an extroverted and active father may feel (and show) disappointment when his child would rather read a book instead of going for a bike ride or tossing a ball around in the backyard. Other temperament mismatches lead to disappointments and misunderstandings in both children and parents.
Depression arises from the assumption that the other person is deliberately choosing their temperament and personality. It's important and healthy for parent and child to understand that is not the case.
2. Parental expectations. Often parents have specific ideas about their children's futures. They may imagine their children following in their professional footsteps, fulfilling their own (unfulfilled) dreams or even continuing to have the same (sometimes rigid) ideas. They may even believe that their adult child must still do as the parents say. The extreme form of the last attitude is still found in cultures that arrange marriages for their offspring, but lesser forms are found everywhere when parents threaten to disown or stop speaking to their children unless they do what the parents want. This is nothing less than emotional blackmail.
Depression arises either from the feeling that you have disappointed your parents by choosing your own path or from the feeling that you weren't able to choose your own path.
3. Conflict between parents. Given that two adults are not always going to agree, parents will inevitably demonstrate to their children either healthy or unhealthy ways to deal with conflict. Children need to feel that home is a safe place, but when parents yell, scream, call names, or resort to physical hostilities, children don't feel safe. At the same time, in extreme cases, they may be reluctant to leave the home--even to attend school--for terrible things may happen while they're gone. One parent speaking badly of the other can cause children to feel they have to choose between their parents, causing stress, anxiety and guilt. They can't develop a healthy relationship with either parent, and may feel emotionally abandoned.
In cases of divorce, there may be a long period of conflict before, during and after the settlement in which the a child is likely to experience various emotions:
Worry and anxiety that if their parents can divorce each other, they may "divorce" the child as well. Very young children are likely to feel this way.
Worry that the divorce is somehow their fault, giving rise to guilt.
Anger over all the changes that have to be dealt with. This especially likely with teens.
Stress caused by moving, changing schools, losing contact with friends, and going back and forth between parents.
I recently had a conversation with a teacher who told me about a girl who was having problems getting her work done and handing it in on time. When he took her aside to ask what was going on, she replied, "I go to my mother's house one day, my stepfather's house the next, then my grandmother's house, and finally my father's house. It's hard." Can you imagine the stress of packing everything up and moving from one house to another that often? She must feel she doesn't have a home. Moreover, she faces the additional stress of dealing with a step-parent and possible step-siblings. It's easy to see how homework might not get done on time. No doubt the judge who decided on this arrangement was seeking to please all the adults while forgetting the needs of the child.
And then there are families where things are definitely not normal. Children of a parent who is an alcoholic, schizophrenic, bipolar or has other psychological or emotional disturbances have to deal with multiple challenges, particularly if the parent has not been diagnosed and/or is not in treatment. The biggest problem comes when the family is not aware of, or does not acknowledge, the dysfunction. Thus, to the child, dysfunction seems normal. Unless these children have friends or relatives who display what normal healthy family relationships are like, the children may grow up and enter dysfunctional relationships. As illogical as that seems, what is familiar often feels safer than situations they're not used to. And the dysfunction continues, even into the next generation.
By this time you ought to be able to see that if you went through any of these experiences, there are various situations that can trigger or deepen depression. The important thing is to identify your triggers and work to realize that the emotions you are presently experiencing were generated in the past and are simply echoes of the real trauma.
In a previous blog, I mentioned how childhood traumas may impair emotional development. If you suspect you are in this situation, don't hesitate to find help. It's out there!
Stephanie Kay Bendel is the author of EXIT THE LABYRINTH: A Memoir of Early Childhood Depression – Its Onset and Aftermath, MAKING CRIME PAY: A Practical Guide to Mystery Writing, and A SCREAM AWAY, a romantic thriller published under the house name, Andrea Harris. She has also written numerous short stories and articles on writing.