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On Our Minds is the name of KERA's mental health news initiative. The station began focusing on the issue in 2013, after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Coverage is funded in part by the Donna Wilhelm Family Fund and Cigna.

Some Kids Blame Themselves For Mom's Sadness. Talking About It Can Help.

Denton resident Amanda Dolin and her children keep an open dialogue about how they're feeling.
Amanda Dolin
Denton resident Amanda Dolin and her children keep an open dialogue about how they're feeling.

Growing up, Denton resident Amanda Dolin didn't understand why her mother spent days crying and struggling to get out of bed. Dolin wondered if she'd done something wrong, and she tried and failed to cheer her mother up.

"I knew that she was sick, but as a child, I didn't have a name for it," Dolin said.

Dolin's mother was diagnosed with depression, and eventually, she found effective treatment. When Dolin was a teenager, she began seeing a psychiatrist. That's when it clicked that she wasn't to blame for her mother's sadness.

"I realized it wasn't about me," Dolin said. "It was about her, and that she was truly doing the best that she could."

As an adult, Dolin sought treatment for her own mental illness. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and she's experienced postpartum depression. For years, she struggled to find her way.

"By the time my kids were four and five, I was really stuck in a really bad place, and I didn't spend any time with them," she said. "I remember my daughter regularly asking me, 'Mommy, why is the house dirty? Mommy, why don't I have clothes to wear?' And looking back now, I realize I was sick, and I didn't have the treatment that I needed."

Dolin has now found the right medication to manage her mental illness, and she's open with her kids about her diagnosis and treatment. She lets them know that sometimes, she's just having a tough day, and it's not their fault. The family members keep an open dialogue about how they're feeling.

So when Dolin's daughter was about 10 and began experiencing symptoms of depression, she came to her mom.

"We were able to talk to her doctor, get her therapy and get her on a very low dose of medication," Dolin said. "She is just thriving now."

Researchers at Dallas' Southern Methodist University are trying to understand how mothers' depressive symptoms can shape their children's mental health. A new SMU studyfinds kids who assume responsibility for their mom's sadness are more likely to face depression and anxiety themselves. Family psychologist Chrystyna Kouros is the lead author.

"What we found was there was a group of children who made what we call these negative attributions in which they blamed themselves, so they thought that their mom's depression had something to do with them, or they caused it or they were responsible for it," Kouros said.

Researchers surveyed 129 North Texas moms and their children. Kouros said most of those mothers were not diagnosed with depression, but even expressing normal, everyday feelings of sadness can affect children's development.

Kouros said kids who tend to blame themselves are more likely to internalize their mothers' symptoms of depression and anxiety. Some of those children may fixate on negative thoughts. Others may try unsuccessfully to cheer their mothers up, which can leave them feeling helpless.

Some moms try to protect their children by hiding sad feelings, Kouros said, but that can backfire. Kids can often pick up on sadness, but they're not always great at deciphering the reasons for it.

"These children who are blaming themselves for their mom's depression, in most cases — or in all cases — it's not their fault," Kouros said. "They're not the cause of their mom's depression. So even though children are perceptive and they're picking up, they might not always have the right interpretation."

Kouros encourages parents to pay attention to children's comments and correct any misconceptions, letting them know it's not their job to make things better.

It's a practice Amanda Dolin uses in her home.

"Say to your child, 'you know what, I'm feeling really sad today, and I need to be alone,'" Dolin said. "Really tell the child that it is not their fault and that you love them and this will pass, but that [you're] going to need some time."

Syeda Hasan is the Elections Editor and Reporter at KERA. Before moving into that role, she covered mental health at the station. A Houston native, her journalism career has taken her to public radio newsrooms around Texas.