Behavioral Consult

Detached parents: How to help


While most of the parents you will see in your office will be thoughtful, engaged, and even anxious, occasionally you will encounter parents who seem detached from their children. Spending just a few extra minutes to understand this detachment could mean an enormous difference in the psychological health and developmental well-being of your patient.

It is striking when you see it: Flat affect, little eye contact, no questions or comments. If the parents seem unconnected to their children, it is worth being curious about it. Whether they are constantly on their phones or just disengaged, you should start by directing a question straight to them. Perhaps a question about the child’s sleep, appetite, or school performance is a good place to start. You would like to assess their knowledge of the child’s development, performance at school, friendships, and interests, to ensure that they are up to date and paying attention.

A doctor talking to her patient. javi_indy/ Thinkstock
You also would like to know that they can engage in an emotionally attuned way with their children, even if during your visit they are not demonstrating this. If the parents are unable to offer reasonable answers to your questions or show some emotional engagement, you should speak further with them, preferably with their children out of the room.

Once alone, you might start by offering your impression of how the child is doing, then observe that you noticed that they (the parents) seem quiet or distant. The following questions should help you better understand the nature of their detachment.


Ask about how they are sleeping. If the child is very young or the parents have a difficult work schedule, they might simply be sleep deprived, which you might help them address. Difficulty sleeping also can be a symptom of depression. Have they noticed any changes in their appetite or energy? Is it harder to concentrate? Have they felt more tearful, sad, or irritable? Have they noticed that they don’t get as much pleasure from things that usually bring them joy? Do they worry about being a burden to others? Major depressive disorder is relatively common, affecting as many as one in five women in the postpartum period and one in ten women generally.

Men experience depression at about half that rate, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is a condition that can cause feelings of guilt and shame, so many suffer silently, missing the chance for treatment and raising the risk for suicide. Infants of depressed mothers often appear listless and may be fussier about sleeping and eating, which can exacerbate poor attachment with their parents, and lead to problems in later years, including anxiety, mood, or behavioral problems. A parent’s depression, particularly in the postpartum period, represents a serious threat to the child’s healthy development and well-being.

Tell the parents that what they have described to you sounds like it could be a depressive episode and that depression has a serious impact on the whole family. Offer that their primary care physicians can evaluate and treat depression, or learn about other resources in your community that you can refer them to for accessible care.

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