When a parent has a mental illness, how to support children

Many children who grow up with a parent’s mental or physical illness learn empathy, kindness, and the ability to cope with difficult circumstances. (Image: Adobe Stock)

Between the long hours, the many responsibilities and the lack of control, few jobs in our society are as demanding as parenthood. If a parent has a mental illness like depression Where anxiety, raising children becomes even more difficult. Many parents live in secrecy, believing that they are the only ones struggling like them.

But being a parent with a mental illness is much more common than many people realize. In one survey of American parents, more than 18 percent reported having had a mental illness in the past year. Although a parent’s mental illness increases a child’s risk of developing a future mental disorder, it is by no means the only possible outcome.

“Having a parent with a mental illness doesn’t always lead to clinically meaningful distress in a child,” says Dr Patricia Ibeziako, deputy head of clinical services at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Services at Boston Children’s Hospital. “It depends on many factors, including the type and severity of the parent’s mental illness, its duration and the child’s age. “

A parent’s mental illness affects children at different ages differently

Dr Patricia Ibeziako
Dr Patricia Ibeziako

Children are most vulnerable to the effects of a parent’s mental illness at specific stages of emotional development. The first step starts early, from infancy up to about 5 years. “This is an important time in brain development when infants and toddlers bond closely,” says Dr. Ibeziako. But a parent with mental illness may not be able to meet their child’s need for bonding. An infant or toddler deprived of positive emotional connections may develop problems regulating their own emotions and behavior. This can result in temper tantrums, sleep disturbances, regression in toilet training, or bedwetting at night.

The next vulnerable period is adolescence. As difficult as their behavior can be at times, teens rely on their parents for structure and positive reinforcement. But a parent with mental illness may be less attentive to their teen’s needs. Or they can focus entirely on the things their child is doing wrong without balancing negative comments with praise. “A parent’s depression, irritability or low tolerance for frustration can cause teens to behave in disruptive ways,” says Dr. Ibeziako.

The lack of energy that depressed parents often experience can also affect their ability to pay attention to their child’s school routines. Without the support of a parent, school-aged children may find it difficult to get to school or extracurricular activities on time. Doing homework can become an overwhelming challenge.

A parent struggling with an anxiety disorder can be overprotective, denying their child the chance to learn problem-solving skills. Or a child who witnesses their parents’ anxious behavior may in turn develop fears and worries.

How to help children develop positive coping skills

Despite these challenges, many children find positive ways to cope. Parents can help.

“Many children who grow up with mental or physical illness from a parent learn empathy and kindness. Many develop resilience, the ability to cope with difficult circumstances, ”explains Dr Ibeziako. “These characteristics often have a lasting positive impact on their relationships into adulthood. If they have children, it can be beneficial for their relationships with their own children.

Below are some concrete steps parents can take to support the healthy emotional development of their children.

Practice self-compassion

“Parents with mental illness often carry a lot of shame and guilt, which doesn’t help them or their children,” says Dr Ibeziako. She recommends that parents compensate for self-criticism with personal care. “There is a direct link between the well-being of a parent and that of their children. By being kind to themselves, parents can have more emotional resources for themselves and their child.

Let children be children

Children may miss out on a carefree game if they become a mini-parent to their parent and siblings. Knowing that their parents are taking care of themselves can free children from a sense of responsibility so that they can play without worry.

Create a structure

“Children need structure to feel safe,” says Dr Ibeziako. Without predictable routines, children may have trouble sleeping or keeping up with homework. A lack of structure can also contribute to anxiety and behavioral crises. The CDC offers a range of suggestions for creating a structure in the house.

Talk openly with your child

Open communication – within limits – can reassure children. “Children are very attentive to their parents,” explains Dr Ibeziako. “If they don’t know why their parent can’t get out of bed, they make up their own story. Many conclude that their parents’ emotional struggle is somehow their fault.

However, she cautions, it’s important for parents to maintain appropriate boundaries. Exposure to a parent’s eating disorders, substance abuse or self-harm could burden children or cause them to engage in similar behaviors.

Find outside support for your child

If a parent feels unable to talk about their mental illness, talk therapy can provide a safe space for children to talk without fear of hurting their parents’ feelings.

Involve another trusted adult

“Having a loving and stable adult in a child’s life helps build resilience,” says Dr. Ibeziako. In a two-parent household, the other parent can provide comfort, stability and support. The other adult can also be a parent, trusted friend, athletic trainer, teacher, or therapist. Having the appropriate social supports within the family or community can help children of parents with mental illness develop skills to overcome adversity. The positive impact can last a lifetime.

Learn more about the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Services.

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