Even relatively normal families can breed depression in their children. I'm not talking about faulting parents. What I'm trying to explain is that well-meaning parents sometimes can't understand their children's needs, not because the children's needs are unusual, but simply because the parents haven't been exposed to people who are different than they are regarding personality, temperament, or inclinations and talents.
Part of the problem comes from the fact that families today are smaller than they used to be. My mother was one of nine children, and my father was one of seven. Consequently, I eventually had twenty-nine aunts and uncles and thirty-six first cousins. Among all these people, I was exposed to many different personalities, temperaments, and expectations. When a child behaved in a an unexpected way, someone would say, "Oh, he's a lot like Uncle Max," (or "she's just like Aunt Sadie"). Consequently, the child was regarded as understandable, and not as a disappointment or as having anything wrong with him or her. Families knew how to treat the child, what he or she needed, and not to expect that this child would necessarily be a lot like Mom or Dad.
Today, with smaller families, parents don't have as wide an experience with different temperaments, personalities, or talents. A father who is a whiz at business may not understand why his son would rather play the violin than than try to sell stocks and bonds and make a fortune. A mother who dreamed of being an artist may not understand why her daughter is so crazy about being a marathon runner. Introverted parents who need periods of peace and quiet may feel their extroverted children are "driving them crazy" and look for ways to have their children be elsewhere much of the time, while extroverted parents who have introverted children may put pressure on the children to take part in physical or social activities that make the children not only uncomfortable but aware that they are "disappointing their parents if they resist." Personality and temperamental mismatches can lead to parents feeling they've somehow failed and to children who feel their parents don't understand them and possibly don't love them, or don't love them as much as a sibling whose temperament and personality match those of the parents.
Both the parents and the child may become resentful or depressed if they can't understand that the other person simply is born that way and they assume that the other deliberately chooses their behavior.
When I was very little, I didn't know anyone else who was named Stephanie, so I asked my mother why I was given an unusual name. My mother told me that when she was pregnant with me, she and my father were so sure I was going to be a boy that they hadn't picked out a name for a girl. It was my grandmother who said that I looked so much like my father that I should be named after him. I'm pretty sure my mother never gave that conversation another thought, but I drew my own conclusions. I was certain my parents were disappointed that I turned out to be a girl instead of the boy they wanted. Fortunately, I didn't hang on to that idea for long, but a small child can take such a chance remark to heart and draw an unwarranted conclusion. Whether they become depressed depends on how tightly they cling to that conclusion.
Every parent has certain expectations for their children, and every child wants their parents to be proud of them. But parents are human beings and some of them have limited ideas about success. If a parent measures success by the size of one's income, an empathetic child who wants to make the world a better place by helping children with learning disabilities may get little or no support from the family whose first question is, "How much are you making?" A parent who expects the children to continue the family business may act betrayed and indignant if the children choose another life. In the end, the children--even if they're responsibly supporting themselves and their own family--are made to feel they've disappointed their parents when they've done nothing wrong. Now the child has been put into a terrible bind, for depression arises either from the feeling that you've disappointed your parents by choosing your own path or the feeling that you were never able to choose your own path.
Depression can also begin in childhood when parents demonstrate unhealthy ways to disagree. When parents yell, scream, call names, or even resort to physical violence, children feel that they're not safe at home. A parent who belittles the other parent makes children feel torn, as if they have to choose which side to be on. Such behavior by the parents creates high levels of stress, anxiety and guilt in the children who then can't develop a healthy relationship with either parent.
And then there's divorce. Children who witness their world coming apart at a time when they know they can't take care of themselves are filled with worry. If Mommy can divorce Daddy, will she divorce me, too? If Daddy disappears, does that mean he doesn't love me anymore? Children often worry that the divorce is somehow their fault, giving rise to undeserved guilt feelings that the child has no way to resolve. Older children often are filled with anger. Mom and Dad are so busy dealing with all the changes in their lives that they often overlook all the adjustments the children are facing. Moving, changing schools, losing friends, going back and forth from Mom's to Dad's, always in transit, feeling they don't have a real home, dealing with broken promises.
On top of all this, many children live in homes where alcoholism, mental illness, personality disorders, lying, irresponsibility or violence are daily experiences. Often the child comes to see these behaviors as normal because that is all they know. And as illogical as it may seem, what is familiar feels safer than the unfamiliar, so if the child doesn't experience normal healthy behavior from friends, neighbors or relatives, he or she may easily become a dysfunctional--and miserable--adult.
If you realize that your life has been colored in any of these ways, know that the emotions you presently experience were generated in the past. You may need help to release yourself from them, but help is available. You can change your life.
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.