How Parental Unhappiness Affects Children

Growing up amidst parental unhappiness can lead children to suffer significant shortcomings and negative consequences. We'll show you the importance of taking care of yourself first so you can take care of your children.
How Parental Unhappiness Affects Children
Elena Sanz Martín

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz Martín.

Last update: 27 December, 2022

From the moment a child’s born, their parents do everything they can to keep them safe, to make them feel loved, and to ensure that they enjoy their childhood. Therefore, some adults may focus so much on their infants that they forget the importance of their own well-being. However, parental unhappiness affects children much more than it may seem at first glance.

A parent’s unhappiness can come from many different sources. Perhaps the couple’s relationship’s no longer working, but both parents continue to stay together “for the sake of their children”.

Perhaps one of them suffers from an illness or disorder such as depression or is simply dissatisfied with their life. These internal states affect the home environment, their performance as parents, and the example they set for their children, influencing their well-being in various ways.

Parental unhappiness affects children in different ways

An unhappy mother hugging her little girl.

We’re all aware that witnessing yelling, fighting, and arguing is detrimental to the emotional development of children. However, there are other types of unhappiness that are apparently less visible, but with an equally relevant impact.

Children are very sensitive and perceptive and can easily pick up on the emotional states of the adults in their lives. Therefore, even if you try to hide your unhappiness from your child, it will still be making a dent in their developing psyche. Here’s why.

Guilt and anxiety

Although children can sense adults’ unhappiness, they can’t always understand why. Most commonly, they deduce that they must be responsible, that they’ve done something wrong, and that’s why their parents are angry or upset. This can produce major feelings of guilt and low self-esteem.

In addition, infants need to adapt to their environment and gain the approval of the adults on whom they depend. For the same reason, they may suffer great anxiety when trying to modify their parents’ moods without success, or they may feel that they need to act a certain way in order not to worsen the situation. When this stress persists and their body keeps releasing large amounts of cortisol, related health problems may even appear.

Poor parenting skills

Parenting skills are all parental actions that aim to seek the best interests of the child. These include establishing a good attachment bond, stimulating the child’s development, protecting the child, and caring for them. However, when a person’s unhappy, they’re not in the best position to take care of anyone else.

For example, studies have found that mothers suffering from depression are less sensitive to their children’s needs and don’t respond to them adequately. This affects the relationship between the two and the children experience a lack of attention and affection.

An inadequate example

At the same time, keep in mind that you, as a mother, are one of the main role models for your child. They look to you as they learn to relate to the world; they observe your reactions, behaviors, and attitudes, and internalizes your way of thinking, feeling, and acting as their own. If you’re unhappy and don’t adequately address the circumstances that cause your unhappiness, you’ll be setting an inappropriate example.

Of course, adults also feel sadness, anger, or frustration, and it’s okay for children to see that, as it helps normalize those emotions. However, it’s important that you take responsibility for yourself and take appropriate steps to improve your well-being. For example, going to therapy, ending a relationship if it’s harmful, strengthening your social relationships, etc. Try to be an example of positive coping for your children rather than a display of pessimism and self-neglect.

The importance of properly handling parental unhappiness

Even though you’re a mother, you’re a human being and still have the right to feel pain, disappointment, and any other negative emotions. However, if you don’t want this to affect your children, it’s important that you learn how to manage it.

First of all, make it clear to them that they’re not responsible for your mood, that you’re an adult, and that they shouldn’t worry about taking care of you. And, at the same time, try to find the resources you need (psychological, emotional, or social) to reverse this unhappy situation. If your children see you deal with it properly, they’ll learn a valuable lesson.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.