Approximately one in five Australian children live in families where at least one parent experiences a mental illness, with depression and anxiety being the most common1. This means that it is highly likely that you know a family that has a parent with a mental illness; or you might be a parent who has a mental illness yourself. Some of these illnesses will be short-term, such as periods of anxiety and high stress when life is particularly difficult; and some will be long-term, such as chronic depression or anxiety. Parenting with a mental illness can be hard work and stressful, and parents can have a difficult time caring for children and providing a stable environment. Parenting with a mental illness can also be a source of happiness, hope, love and motivation, and not all children of parents with a mental illness will experience difficulties as a result of their parent's health status2. However, children of parents with a mental illness are at greater risk of experiencing difficulties and it is important to be planned and prepared to help support children and family members to prevent future difficulties.
COPMI (Children of Parents with a Mental Illness) is a national initiative that provides extensive information and resources for parents who experience mental illness.
Parenting with a mental illness
Parenting is closely linked with recovery from mental illness. Recovery can mean different things for different parents and families, but it is important to view it as a family process as much as an individual one.
If you are a parent with a mental illness, it is important to get help to understand your mental illness and manage the impact of symptoms, behaviours and the side effects of treatments on your parenting role and your children. Talking and working together with your family can provide opportunities for them to share their understandings and experiences of mental illness and help the healing process. It can be helpful to reflect on what recovery and parenting means to you and your family and understand each other’s perspectives, hopes for the future and how you can work together to nurture them.
COPMI explains that it can be helpful to remember that:
- your children and family have strengths that have helped them get through – and you have contributed to those strengths
- mental illness is not anyone's fault (including yours) and this needs to be acknowledged and discussed as a family
- family relationships can take time to heal
It is also important to understand your mental illness and recognise and use your support networks, as well as talking and working together with your family. Part of this can be working out how to manage conflict and provide opportunities for family members to talk about their understandings and experiences of mental illness to help the healing process.
Helping my child and family
Children and families of parents with a mental illness need support. Part of this is helping parents with a mental illness maintain a sense of closeness and connection to their child when they are unwell. For these parents, it can be difficult managing their own needs, such as rest and time to themselves, and what their child needs (closeness, connection and attention). Ideas that may help these parents connect with their children focus on small things such as cuddles, leaving nice messages, watching TV together, rather than big gestures or activities. If the parent is spending time in hospital, they could talk with their family about some ideas that might work best to maintain communication and connection to their child, such as setting up a phone call, sending a message, sending a letter or planning visits.
Children, like their parents, also need support networks and connections outside the family, which can help promote their wellbeing and strengthen the family as a whole. My child’s support network is a guide that can help each child in the family to identify close relationships and strengthen these relationships so they can be used in tough times. When these tough times do occur, or a family member might experience a mental health crisis, it may help to prepare by creating a family care plan. This plan helps let everyone (including family members and health professionals) know what the family’s preferences are when things get tough. It can help maintain routine and familiarity that a child needs to feel safe and secure during these times, and a family care plan is best written when the parent is well and completed with another family member or health professional.
If you are a parent with a mental illness, the following suggestions may help:
Maintaining a sense of closeness and connection to your child when you are unwell is important. It can be difficult managing your needs, such as rest and time to yourself, and what your child needs (closeness, connection and attention). Ideas that may help you connect don’t need to be high energy to have a big impact and include things such as cuddles, leaving nice messages, watching your child play, sharing a story or watching TV together.
Manage daily tasks and routines
Sticking to predictable daily routines can help provide your child with a sense of security, familiarity and comfort. Maintaining simple daily rituals that help you connect with your child (e.g. brushing your teeth or hair together, reading a story or tucking them into bed) can be a simple way of maintaining a routine without overloading you. When maintaining regular routines, it can be helpful to consider the following questions:
- What does your child's regular routine look like on weekdays and weekends?
- What are some of the important activities in your child's life?
- How can routines be maintained when things get tough?
- Who else can help to keep routines stable?
- How can you ask for help?
Your child's support network
Children, like their parents, also need support networks and connections outside the family, these can help promote their wellbeing. COPMI’s ‘My child’s support network’ guide can help parents to identify close relationships in their child’s life and how to strengthen these.
Planning for tough times
It may help to prepare a child care plan to help let everyone (including family members and health professionals) know what your family’s preferences are for the care of your children when things get tough. A family care plan is best written when you are well and can be completed with your partner, a friend or family member or your health professional.
Talking to your child about your mental illness
Talking to your child and family members to help them understand your mental illness can help your child to cope better, help them make sense of the changes they see in you when you are unwell and know that it is not their fault. Most parents with a mental illness find it difficult to talk about their struggles. It can be important to develop your own understanding of what is happening to you first and talk to a health professional beforehand to help you feel more confident and prepared to talk to your child. Your child will have a different level of understanding depending on their age and development stage (babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers and primary-school age). Putting yourself in their shoes and understanding what they might notice and how they might make sense of your symptoms can help guide how you might speak to them about it. It can be good to plan this with your partner or another supportive person.
If your child is at primary school, you may also want to talk to their school about your mental health. This can help teachers become aware of your situation, make informed decisions about how they respond to common situations with your child (e.g. didn’t finish homework on time), and help you and your child’s teacher and wellbeing team work together to support your child.
This article is designed to help you get started, for more information and resources for parents with a mental illness visit the COPMI website:
If you are concerned about your child’s mental health:
- Reupert, A. E., Maybery, D., & Kowalenko, N. (2012) Children whose parents have a mental illness: prevalence, need and treatment. Medical Journal of Australia Open, 199(3 Suppl), 7-9.
- Farrell, G. A., Handley, C., Hanke, A., Hazelton, M., & Josephs, A. (1999).The Tasmanian Children's Project Report: The needs of children and adolescents with a parent/carer with a mental illness. Hobart: Tasmanian School of Nursing and the Department of Health and Human Services.