How to Assist Mom or Dad with Depression While Taking Care of Yourself

Depression in the family is one of those taboo topics. You may ponder how to address troubling signs of depression you see in your mother or father. It's also tricky to navigate role reversal: the parent who took care of you now needs looking after.

Depressed Parent - Masterfile

Depression Signs

Your first step is to familiarize yourself with the various faces of depression. Depression can present differently from person to person. You might notice that your parent has lost interest in normally pleasurable activities, such as hobbies or family events.

Mom or Dad may express sadness, hopelessness and/or helplessness. Sometimes hopelessness isn't evident. Instead, your mother or father complains of physical symptoms, such as fatigue, aches and pains, including headaches, stomach problems or back pain - and no reason is offered.

Your parent may be sleeping more or less than usual. Or, he or she may have gained or lost substantial weight recently. Some other signs that Mom or Dad isn't doing well: excessive drinking or drug abuse (including abnormal use of sleeping pills and painkillers), indecisiveness, disorganization and forgetfulness.

Older adults may display physical symptoms more often than emotional ones. It's common for seniors to develop depression following bereavement, loss of independence and health problems.

If you notice these depression signs in a parent, don't ignore them. It's all too easy to make excuses or rationalize the problem. But it's vital to get help.

How To Help a Depressed Parent

Today nearly 20 percent of the population meets the criteria for some type of depression. The good news is that 80 or 90 percent of people with the mood disorder can be treated with antidepressant medications and psychotherapy.

Here are some ways to start the conversation with Mom or Dad:

  • Say "I've been concerned about you lately," or "I wanted to check in with you because I've noticed that you've seemed different. How you are doing?"
  • Follow up with questions that gather information, such as, "When did you start feeling this way?" or "Did something happen that caused you to feel this way?" Move on to "How can I best support you right now?" and "Have you thought about getting help?"
  • Although it may be difficult to ask this next question, you need to determine if there is a suicide risk; ask: "Do you feel so bad that you don't want to be here anymore?" If the answer is "yes," get immediate help.

Be sure to remind your parent that he or she is not struggling alone. Express how important he is to you.

What to Do If Your Parent Refuses Help

Getting your parent to agree to treatment may not be easy. A depressed person may feel too hopeless to think that treatment will help. If Mom or Dad resists intervention, schedule a routine check-up with the family physician and go along to the appointment.

Inform the doctor about your parent's symptoms before the visit. The doctor can determine if medical reasons are contributing to the depression and provide a referral to a mental health professional. Don't stop there. Help your mother or father make and keep follow-up appointments and take any depression medication.

It's crucial to display patience and keep a positive outlook. If your Mom or Dad upsets you, express your feelings gently. Use "I" statements, such as "I feel upset when you don't take your medication. I believe it will help you feel better." You want to avoid making "you statements," such as "you make me mad" or "you need to snap out of it," as they convey blame.

Communicating honestly remains important for your relationship. If you hold in sadness or allow frustration to build up, your parent may sense it and feel worse.

Taking Care of Yourself

It is just as important to take care of yourself as it is to help your depressed parent. Children of depressed parents are often at higher risk themselves for depression, substance abuse and social withdrawal.

Create healthy boundaries for yourself: Set clear limits on what you are willing and able to do and skip the guilt. Recognize that you cannot rescue your parent or fix the problem on your own; you can only do so much. Your parent must be willing to accept the help.

Also try to live as normal a life as possible by keeping appointments and plans with your friends. Get support for yourself by talking to a counselor or trusted friend. Joining a support group with people who are having similar problems can help alleviate some of the burdens of your situation.

Both you and your parent need to eat and exercise regularly and seek support. Do uplifting things together: Take a walk or go see a funny movie. Being proactive and maintaining a positive outlook can bring comfort to you both.

Written by: Betty Holt

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 11 Jul 2011

Last Modified: 11 Aug 2014