Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Trying to Comfort the Parent: A Qualitative Study of Children Dealing with Parental Depression

Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Trying to Comfort the Parent: A Qualitative Study of Children Dealing with Parental Depression

Article excerpt

In this article, we look at children's experiences of parentification in families in which one of the parents is hospitalized for depression. Children (7-14 years old) and their parents were invited for a family interview. Using thematic analysis, we constructed a general framework of 14 children's experiences, guided by the explorative research question: How do children experience parental depression and how do they experience their own caregiving in the family? The thematic analysis revealed eight themes. One of these themes (trying to comfort the parent) was selected for a microanalysis in one family interview. Our study illustrates the process of overt negotiating of caretaking between parent and child with an underlying moral dilemma and related emotions. The dynamic of children hiding their worry can be seen as an answer to the parent's expressed wish to not burden her children. These dynamics are situated in ongoing debates in family therapy literature, and some suggestions for therapeutic practice are formulated.

In recent years, a growing number of studies focused on the influence of parental mental illness on general family functioning and on the children's well-being in particular (e.g., Cummings, Keller, & Davies, 2005; Foster et al., 2008). The main aim of this type of research is predicting and explaining relations between parental mental illness and psychopathology in the child. In this research, children tend to be pictured as passive receivers of adverse outcomes of their parent's condition (Gladstone, Boydell, & McKeever, 2006). In contrast, the literature on coping mechanisms in children takes a different angle, highlighting the child's active position in the family (e.g., Compas, Langrock, Keller, Merchant, & Copeland, 2002). According to Com-pas et al. (2002), the child's coping can be seen as a mediator between stressful family processes such as parental intrusiveness and parental withdrawal, and children's symptoms.


For a child, active involvement in the family's functioning or in the parent's emotional life is one particular way of dealing with a mentally ill parent (Göpfert, Webster, & Seeman, 2004). Children often feel the vulnerabilities in their parent and try to act in ways that cause the least trouble or try to actively contribute to the family's well-being (Earley & Cushway, 2002). In the family therapy literature, such family processes are referred to as "parentification" (e.g., Boszormenyi-Nagy & Spark, 1973; Chase, 1999; Jurkovic, 1997; Peris, Goecke-Morey, Cummings, & Emery, 2008). Parental depression is considered as one of the contexts in which processes of parentification occur (Aldridge, 2006; Champion et al, 2009).

According to family systems theory (Minuchin, 1974; Minuchin, Montalvo, & Guerney, 1967), the boundaries between parental subsystem and child subsystem carry the possibility to be structurally rearranged in order to meet the family needs. Agreeing with Boszormenyi-Nagy and Spark (1973) who see parentification as a component of the regressive core in all relationships, even balanced and mutual relationships, we do not consider parentification to be an inherently pathological dynamic. This family process can be seen as a continuum starting from adaptive "normal" forms of care in the family to more excessive and burdening patterns (Byng-Hall, 2008; Jurkovic, 1997). The concept of parentification highlights the significance of circular family processes and of the child's active role in the family: "theories of parentification raise the importance of a systemic approach to children as caregivers emphasizing the role of reciprocity and parents as providers and givers of support as well as recipients" (Earley & Cushway, 2002, p. 172).


Champion et al. (2009) found that emotional caretaking can be a predictor of anxiety and depression symptoms in adolescent children of mothers with a history of depression. …

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