Emerging Minds acknowledges that families come in many forms. For the purposes of easy reading, the term ‘parent’ encompasses the biological, adoptive, foster and kinship carers of a child, as well as individuals who have chosen to take up primary or shared responsibility in raising that child.
On this page:
- The parent-child relationship
- Maintaining connections
- Emotions and behaviours
- Support networks
- Daily activities
- Communication and meaning-making
If you are a parent living with a mental illness, you are not alone. The National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing showed 3.4 million or 17% of Australians aged 16–85 years had accessed a health professional due to mental health concerns during 2020–21.1
With this resource we aim to build your awareness of the potential impact that your mental health difficulties can have on your children and family, but more importantly reassure you that with the right supports there is plenty that you can do to minimise any negative impact on your family’s mental health and wellbeing.
As a parent you have skills, strengths and supports you use to help your children thrive. When parenting with mental illness it can be harder to draw on some of these skills, particularly during times of stress. Without the right supports in place this can have an impact on your parenting role and the relationship you build with your child, which can in turn impact their overall mental health and wellbeing.
Not all children will experience difficulties as a result of their parent’s mental illness. But reflecting on the potential impacts will help you recognise when you need further support and implement strategies, to ensure you and your family can manage the more difficult times with strength and resilience. In thinking about how your children may be affected when you’re experiencing mental health difficulties consider the following.
Understandably when you’re experiencing mental illness there may be times when you are less attentive to your children’s needs. You may be less able to read and respond to your children’s cues. Perhaps you aren’t as consistent with setting boundaries and rules, or maintaining routines. You may also rely on older children to take on caring roles within the family more often than you would like to. When this is the case, it is important that you still try and find ways of maintaining a sense of connection with your children.
A strong connection with their parent/s helps children to feel stable and secure, which in turn benefits both the child’s and parents’ wellbeing. Small gestures of connection, such as a cuddle on the couch while watching TV (because that may be all you have the energy for), will help let your child know they are important to you. You’ll find more examples of ways to strengthen connections with your child in Staying connected to your children when living with mental illness.
Mental health difficulties can affect how well you are able to respond to your child’s emotions or behaviours in a consistent, positive and supportive way. You may find yourself exhausted and have difficulty focusing on your children and their needs. Understandably your tolerance to challenging behaviours may be lower and you may find it harder to remain calm and help children work through their own emotions. This in turn can impact on your children’s ability to regulate their emotions.
Occupational Therapist and Manager of the Families & Education team at Emerging Minds, Ben Rogers, explains emotional regulation in the following sound bite.
Consider it a strength to know when you are at your limit and need space on your own, whether it’s for 10 minutes, an hour or a day. Taking some time away from each other is OK and can benefit both you and your children. If your children are old enough to understand let them know that you are just going to take a walk outside alone to get some fresh air. With younger children, finding other adults that can offer support and meet your children’s needs while you take a break is important too – this may be a family member, trusted friend or even a childcare service.
Secrecy or stigma around a parent’s mental illness may reduce the family’s contact with their important support networks such as extended family and friends. A parent’s mental illness may also lead them to withdraw socially, a common symptom of many mental health difficulties, which in turn reduces the child’s ability to make their own connections. This social isolation can also have a further negative impact on both the parent’s and children’s mental health and emotional wellbeing.
It’s beneficial for both you and your children to have strong, established support networks you can turn to when things get difficult. Identifying trusted adult family members and friends and encouraging your children to talk to them is a great way for them to access support. Talk to these family members and friends to find out what help they might be able to provide and let them know how they can best support your children.
As the saying goes, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, so if you have recently relocated or could benefit from building some new support networks there are a range of programs and services available. For more information take a look at the following resources:
The symptoms of mental illness can disrupt your regular family routines, such as mealtimes, bedtimes and getting to and from school. You may be less available to engage in regular activities and this is when having a support network will be invaluable to you and your family. Are there others in addition to family and trusted friends who you might be able to turn to for help with everyday activities when you are experiencing difficulties? For example, perhaps there is another parent whose children go to the same school or are in the same sports team as yours who could drop off and pick-up your child too for a few days to give you a break.
You may feel that keeping the details of your mental health difficulties from your children will protect them, while avoiding your own feelings of guilt or embarrassment. However, sharing your experiences can not only help breakdown stigma, but research shows doing so may help children cope better.
Sometimes when children or teenagers don’t understand they may:
- feel responsible for their parent’s illness
- take on extra responsibilities to ‘make things better’
- withdraw from their parent/s
- feel shame or guilt about their parent’s illness
- worry about their parent, particularly if they have no age-appropriate understanding of what is happening; or
- find it hard to ask questions about what is happening and what it all means.
Although it may be difficult it’s important to try and keep the lines of communication open between you and your child so they can make meaning of what you’re experiencing.
Two very common questions your children may want answered are:
The guides answering these questions are written for a young audience, and may help you to answer these questions for your children.
By taking the time to consider how your mental illness may affect your children, you can take steps to ensure your family is supported during difficult times. By maintaining a sense of connection and keeping the lines of communication open you will help raise children who are secure and resilient. Learning these skills early and putting supports in place before things get too difficult sets your family up to successfully manage life’s ups and downs.
1. Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2021). First insights from the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, 2021. Canberra: ABS.
2. Australian Infant, Child, Adolescent & Family Mental Health Association. (2010). Transcript of group workshop for children of parents with a mental illness, child participant. Adelaide: AICAFMHA.