‘What’s wrong with dad? He won’t talk to me, he’s sullen and his temper can be terrible. I just keep getting it wrong and I don’t know why?’
Sally had no idea that the state of her room upset dad so much. Okay it was untidy, but the day dad erupted it scared her so much she began to shake and cry. Since then not a thing in Sally’s room has been out of place. She tries so hard to be helpful and not to upset him. Even so, no matter how hard Sally tries, it never seems good enough.
The opening paragraphs are a fiction, but they are along the lines many young people will find familiar. Today, I’m considering just some of the effects and implications of a father’s depression on those around them, especially their children.
Sometimes it’s hard enough for adults to spot that a man is depressed. Even the man affected may not see his symptoms and behavior for what it is. Children struggle even more, and children being children, will look inwards and view themselves as a likely source of the problem.
Younger dads are less likely to admit to having a problem and less likely to seek help. Emotional issues in men carry a huge stigma and undermine years of socializing into what it means to be a man. But I’ve written about depression in men previously and this post has a different focus.
Several concerns in a variety of studies have been raised about dad’s depression. For example, the emotional withdrawal, irritability and lack of affection and attention by a father, is considered by some to increase the risk depression and anxiety in the child. Other studies point to particular effects on women, but let’s take our fictional Sally as an example. She could easily acquire such a strong need to predict the mood changes in her father and keep him happy, that as an adult she falls victim to living in a dysfunctional relationship. Her lack of self-worth and fear of upsetting others could result in her becoming a passive victim in an abusive partnership.
It’s a breathtakingly unfair responsibility for a child to try and care for a depressed dad. But parental relationships do collapse, mothers do die, or mothers themselves are so damaged they can’t provide the support, advice or encouragement their child needs. Another danger is one of role reversal where a child finds they are assuming more and more of a parental role in caring for their father. If other older members in the family see this happening they have to feel able to give support to the child and put pressure on the father to seek professional help.
Sometimes men need a clear strong message in order for them to acknowledge the effects they are having on others. The child and the dad both need support in such circumstances and if family or friends can provide this the potential damage to those concerned will be considerably reduced if not prevented.