The NIMH has studied the difference between how depressed mothers relate to their children versus healthy mothers. Studies have shown that depressed mothers are more likely to be critical of their children and less likely to talk to them, except under mildly stressful situations, when the depressed mothers tend to overreact.  Depressed mothers are more likely to interact with their children because of something within themselves, rather than in response to something the child does or says, and as a result the child has little sense of what to expect.
When I was growing up, my mother never helped me in any way. I can remember fixing myself some soup when I was sick at 10-years-old and resenting the fact that she wasn’t there for me. I always said to myself, I don’t know what I am supposed to do, which I’m sure children continue to say today.
Three quarters of the mothers who were studied by NIMH had a psychiatric diagnosis of major depressive illness, and by the time of the first follow-up assessment, 71% of their children did too. Some of these mothers though – even the most sad and anxious, had good relationships with their children.
Which brings us to the question: What makes someone a survivor after living with a severely depressed mother? Part of it is better-than-average intelligence according to Dr. Tracy Sherman who participated in the study. Another characteristic in the child is having qualities that elicit positive responses from others. Even though the mother may not be responsive most of the time, a child who continually smiles at the mother and encourages the mother to take care of her will many times get some type of positive response from her.
NIMH found that a key feature of the relatively well child of depressed mothers was that the child seemed to match the needs of the mother or the family. Sometimes the mother expressed affection to feed her own emotional needs, making the child no more than a “Teddy bear.” But the child would docilely allow herself to be petted. Somehow, by her intelligence or charm or chance, we see the children doing better than the odds” by making the most of whatever little emotional support is available from the family.
Sadly, this condition continues today. Help is needed not only for the mother, but especially for all the children who are neglected and are made to take care of themselves when they should be given all the love they most richly deserve.
 “Moods and Childrearing,” The Washington Postm June 1987