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


  • Hanna Van Parys, MPsy, is research assistant at the Institute for Family and Sexuality Studies, University of Leuven, and family therapist in Context (UPC KU Leuven), Belgium.
    Peter Rober, PhD, is family therapist in Context (UPC KU Leuven) and full professor at the Institute for Family and Sexuality Studies, University of Leuven, Belgium.

  • We would like to thank Dr. Lili De Vooght, Lieven Migerode, Barbara Lavrysen, and all staff members of the unit Anxiety and Depression of the University Hospital Leuven, Belgium, for their cooperative support of this research.

  • Portions of this article were presented at the 1st International Congress on Dialectical Practices, September 2011, Helsinki, Finland.

  • The authors disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research: The Research Foundation—Flanders (FWO).

Address correspondence to Hanna Van Parys, Institute for Family and Sexuality Studies, University of Leuven, Kapucijnenvoer 33, 3000 Leuven, Belgium; E-mail:


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.