It's all in the family: The Cycle of Depression

You go to the doctor, therapist, psychiatrist… and they ask for your medical history. Does your family have a history of COPD? Cancer? Heart Problems? What about depression? When you get to that question, you may think, there is a cycle of depression through the family; that must be because there’s a genetic link. That may be true, but there’s another reason doctors ask about what mental illness tend to run in the family, and their reasoning is not always necessarily genetic.

Childhood Environment

When a mother is a depressed, do you think they are feeling motivated to go play, and run around, and do fun crafts with their children? Probably not. When we become depressed, are more likely to become irritable, sleepy, etc. Imagine the situation, your three year old child tells you they want to play. You reply, “Mommy isn’t feeling so good right now, why don’t you watch your cartoon movie?” You place in the cartoon du jour, and maybe fall asleep on the couch, or zone out while doing something else. You come back to check on your child, and they’ve gotten into your nail polish and decided to paint everything. Being that you’re fatigued, irritable, and feeling blue, you quickly become angered and yell at your child and tell them to go to time out. You don’t think to stop and explain what they did was wrong, you just become frustrated and quickly yell at your child.

Obviously, the above scenario is not ideal, but when you are experiencing depression, your brain does not always respond the way you’d like or are used to. For about this, see this link on Depression’s Secret Plan For Your Identity. The child does not understand that you are suffering from depression. If this happens periodically here or there, don’t worry, you’d be surprised how resilient kids can be. If this situation happens repeatedly, over months or even years, the child may begin to internalize that they always do something wrong, or that they make mommy unhappy. If this situation sounds familiar to you, this is not meant to make you think, “oh my goodness, I’m a horrible parent”, it’s meant to educate readers on how this cycle can perpetuate itself in families.

How Does This affect us in Adulthood?

If we experience a situation like the one above, and never eventually receive comforting, explanation, or it continues for long enough, again, the child may internalize the idea that they are bad. As this continues into late childhood, and adolescence, the child is more likely to go on to develop depression.  If you were this child, you can break the cycle by seeking treatment for your depression. This will also help you to be an even better parent for your child.

For more information on Childhood Depression, check out this link: HERE


A few months ago, MentalHelp.Net posted an article about recent research finding that children of mothers with a history of depression seem to be less happy. They compared children whose mothers had a history of depression, with children whose mothers did not. They found that each set of children displayed equal levels of negative emotions when exposed to stimuli meant to illicit negative emotions. However, when attempting to illicit positive/happy emotions, the children of mothers who had a history of depression showed lower levels of happiness. This helped researchers to state that low levels of happiness, instead of high levels of sadness, could be another warning sign of childhood depression. According to the researcher…

Parents or guardians should not ignore children’s sadness or frustration, advised Lopez-Duran. Children who are unable to experience happiness during their playtime or other activities may be at risk for depression and should be evaluated by a health professional, he added.

Breaking the Cycle, and Taking it out of the Family

Children of a depressed parent more at risk for developing depression, that much is clear. And again, the purpose of this article, is not to cause feelings of guilt or sadness if you have found yourself in this situation. It’s meant to increase understanding, and allow you to empower yourself and encourage those who need treatment to get into treatment. In 2009, Vanderbuilt University published anarticle about how to break this cycle. They found that treatment for the child/teen was not enough to help the depressed parent, and recommended engaging in family therapy to help both the parent and the child overcome depression.

October 10th is World Mental Health Day. I encourage you, if you feel you may be suffering from a mental illness to please seek help!

ALSO – Today is National Depression Screening Day!

Not all wounds are physical. Depression, PTSD and related mood disorders can not be seen on an x-ray. Yet mental illness is just as painful. And the stigma associated with the disease often prevents many from seeking help and getting treated. National Depression Screening Day (NDSD) gives people access to an anonymous validated, screening questionnaire and provides referral information for treatment. Visit to find a local organization offering depression and anxiety screenings or take a screening online today.

Nicole Paulie is a Counselling Psychologist, and co-author of “How to be Happy and Healthy – The seven natural elements of mental health.” She provides therapy in the Dublin city area. Contact us to learn more or to book an appointment.

It’s all in the family: The Cycle of Depression
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