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Not everyone knows how to help the child of a depressed parent. It’s important to spot the warning signs and then implement sensitive intervention methods.

Rates of depression are climbing in the general population, so it stands to reason that rates of depressed parents are rising, too. It’s their children who bear the brunt in all sorts of ways. The sad irony is that it’s a relatively easy thing to fix.
Here are some warning signs to look out for and a few intervention tips for helping the child of a depressed parent:

Warning Signs

  • The child looks neglected, exhibiting poor hygiene, dirty or dishevelled clothing.
  • Child seems over-tired or hyperactive.
  • The child becomes emotionally withdrawn or over-expressive, with angry outbursts.
  • School behaviour is erratic, possibly with bouts of crying.
  • The parent makes less than usual contact with the school, not attending PTA meetings, for example.
  • Child gives clues like “I couldn’t do my homework/project etc. because Mom was sleeping”.
  • The child may mention marital discord between their parents.
  • Child may say things like, “I have a sore tummy”, when they don’t look ill, which is a very common sign that the child may be carrying an emotional burden that requires exploration.
  • The child may become clingy towards their teacher or another parent.
  • Child’s drawings may be revealing: but should be assessed by a professional.
  • The child may be overly worried about being separated from their parents, especially if there have been previous suicide attempts or talk of ‘not wanting to live’.
  • There may be personality changes.
  • Child may exhibit a lack of concentration.
  • The child’s school grades may suffer.
  • Child may start behaving differently towards their friends.


  • Handle it sensitively and with care and respect. The depressed parent is unlikely to welcome ‘prying’.
  • A starting point might be to express concern directly to the parent specifying exactly what behaviour you have noticed in their child that is concerning.
  • Try to talk to the parent about how they are coping. Ask parents if they are concerned about being able to care for their child or otherwise function at home or at work. Ask them about what supports they have used, and if possible suggest other resources they can use. Their responses may indicate if they need intervention and present the opportunity to provide some support.
  • Relieve the burden on the depressed parent. Depressed parents need help, not only with their depression but also in terms of caring for their children while they are recovering.
  • Provide a safe and stable environment for the child wherever you interact with them.
  • Allow the child to express any feelings by adopting a caring and accepting stance.
  • Illustrate good coping and problem solving techniques, explaining that this can help the child as children tend to copy others’ behaviour.
  • If the parent admits they are depressed, encourage them to seek counselling, for themselves and the child.
  • Teachers can refer children for professional counselling or therapy for scholastic problems. A trained therapist can then handle this carefully and address issues with the parents.
  • Listen carefully and read between the lines. This makes any child feel worthwhile. 
  • Help children to understand depression. Most important is for the child to understand that their parent’s depression is not their fault. It is also not a fault of the parents. 
  • Depending on your relationship with the parent, offer a helping hand or show your willingness to offer emotional support, without implying that you think they are doing a bad job.
  • Teachers can call parents in for a chat if they feel that something is amiss with the child and they may be in a unique position to suggest ways in which parents can seek help.

Who to call

If you suspect that a child is being abused or significantly neglected, however, it is best to involve the authorities who can use their professional skills to help the family. Phone Child Welfare – 0878221516; FAMSA – 011 975 7107; or the Parent Centre – 021 762 0116 for advice.

Thanks to Michele Carelse, Carol Dixon and Lauren Moss for their valuable input in helping the child of a depressed parent.

Laura Twiggs