Depression and the Mother and Child Relationship

Depression and the Mother and Child Relationship

Recent studies indicate that, every year, approximately 15 million Americans suffer extended periods of clinical depression. Of that number, there is a subset for whom clinical depression is a lifelong struggle. It has also been documented that women are twice as likely to suffer from this debilitating disease as men. A significant number of new mothers suffer from postpartum depression. The vast majority of those recover after a brief period of time. However, some women are life-long sufferers for whom a “cure” has been elusive. What are the effects on the children who grow up with mothers who suffer from prolonged periods of depression? How well known are those effects? I can only speak from my own personal experience as a son of a severely depressed mother, combined with casual observations of other cases.

The importance of a strong mother/child bond is well documented and virtually indisputable. The first few years of that relationship are extremely critical in laying the emotional and psychological foundations from which the child will develop. Many studies have indicated that the first two years of life is the critical stage that largely dictates who and what we will become in later life. A mother who suffers from clinical depression may be unable to provide the child with the intimacy that is necessary to facilitate a healthy mother/child bond. In many cases, the mother understands what is required of her but is incapable of responding due to one, or a combination of, the following:

• Lack of desire
• Lack of energy
• Feelings of inadequacy
• Inability to give anything beyond the superficial

The sense of detachment that results from a poor mother/child bond can last a lifetime. Trying to enhance a bond that was never fully developed is extremely difficult. Given the fact that extreme depression can often be accompanied by other personality disorders (e.g., Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder,) the parent/child roles can become reversed, with the child being forced to assume the emotional role of the parent. This role-reversal can deprive the child of many of the elements of a normal childhood and can create a festering resentment towards the mother. This can gradually devolve into a love/hate relationship that neither mother nor child are able to extricate themselves from.

During early adolescence these children find that their activities are, almost without exception, centered around the homes and families of others. Their home is seldom the gathering place for friends and family. Their ability to form friendships may not be impaired, but in many cases those friendships may lack significant depth or trust. Many of these children also exhibit a heightened need for control. They strive for control and structure in their relationships and environment. If unchecked, these issues can impair their ability to function effectively in those circumstances and environments that lack the level of structure and control that they need.

Perhaps the most tragic consequence of this particular mother/child dynamic is that, over time, the child loses the ability to see his or her mother as a real person who, despite all her problems, shares most of the common traits with all of us frail humans. After years of living inside the combustible relationship, we lose sight of the fact that at one time she had her own set of dreams. We forget that in spite of all the drama and manipulation that much of her pain was/is real.

We forget that she is our Mother…

Keith Merrill

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