Impact of parental mental health problems
Many parents with mental health problems are able to manage their condition and minimise its impact on their children, particularly if they are able to access appropriate support. But sometimes it does affect their ability to cope with family life.
Parental mental health problems may affect children differently according to the severity and type of mental health condition, the child’s age and stage of development, and the child’s personality.
Coping with challenges
Some parents experience mental health problems along with other challenges such as:
- divorce or separation
- financial hardship
- poor housing
- a lack of social support
- domestic abuse
- substance misuse.
If they are facing several challenges at once, it can be very hard for parents to provide their children with safe and loving care, particularly if they are isolated or aren't getting the support they need (Cleaver, Unell and Aldgate, 2011; Gatsou et al, 2017; Grove, Reupert and Maybery, 2015; Hogg, 2013; Wolpert et al, 2015).
Research has found there is a greater risk to children’s safety if parents with mental health problems are also experiencing domestic abuse or substance misuse (Cleaver, Unell and Aldgate, 2011).
Caring for children
Some parents and carers with mental health problems may need support to cope with the routines of daily life, such as housework, mealtimes, bedtimes, taking children to school, and taking children to medical and dental appointments.
They may also find it more difficult to:
- control their mood and emotions around their children
- recognise and respond to children's physical and emotional needs
- engage socially with their children
- set and maintain safe and appropriate boundaries and manage their children's behaviour.
If parents don't get the support they need from family, friends, neighbours and/or professionals, these challenges may escalate. In extreme cases, children may experience abuse and/or neglect.
Babies and younger children
Babies and young children rely on their parents and carers to give them the warm, nurturing care they need to grow.
If parents experience mental health problems in pregnancy or the first year of a baby’s life, this can affect the way they are able to bond with and care for their child. This can have an impact on the child’s intellectual, emotional, social and psychological development (Gajos and Beaver, 2017; Hogg, 2013).
This means it’s important that practitioners are able to recognise if a new parent or carer is struggling with their mental health and help them access appropriate support.
Many children whose parents have a mental health problem do not experience any negative effects. But if parents are not getting the right support to care for their family, this can have an impact on their children's wellbeing.
Signs that a child might need extra support include:
- being worried about their parent or carer’s condition
- taking on a caring role for parents and other family members
- putting the needs of their family above their own
- having negative feelings about their parent’s condition
- finding it hard to make friends, feeling isolated or being bullied
- not feeling able to talk to their parents or another trusted adult about their worries.
"My parents aren't having a good time. They both have mental health problems and anger issues. They are so aggressive and spark each other off. I have been scared about something bad happening for a while. My parents don't seem to care about how much seeing them like this upsets me. I don't feel like I can talk to anyone about this. It feels like there is no solution to this situation and I am going to have to just deal with it and carry on hoping things will get better."
Childline counselling session with a girl aged 12
If a parent has severe mental health problems, children may have to cope with frightening and upsetting situations such as:
- being separated from their parents, either because parents need to go into hospital and/or because the child is taken into care
- a parent attempting to take their own life
- a parent displaying extremely volatile behaviour.
If these things happen, it’s important to consider how this has affected the wellbeing of everyone in the family and what support can be put in place.
Stigma and barriers to seeking support
Sometimes families experience stigma related to mental health problems.
Parents, carers and their families may experience discrimination from others, and this may be displayed consciously or unconsciously. For example, children may experience bullying, it may be difficult for parents to get work or families may experience social isolation.
Parents and carers might find it hard to speak out and ask for support, if they:
- are worried that disclosing mental health concerns might make people think that they are incapable of looking after their child
- feel unable to talk about mental health because professionals don’t seem interested or don’t ask them about it
- feel that they should be enjoying pregnancy or being a parent or carer.
New parents and carers may also assume that what they’re feeling is normal when having a new baby. (NHS England, 2023; Centre for Mental Health, 2022).
Professionals have an important role to play in raising awareness about mental health problems, taking action to tackle discrimination, recognising if a parent or carer is struggling with their mental health and making sure families get the support they need.
Risk and vulnerability factors
All families experience challenges from time to time. This doesn’t necessarily mean children are at greater risk of abuse. But when problems mount up, it can be more difficult for parents to cope – particularly if they are isolated or lack support.
The risks to children are greater when parental mental health problems exist alongside domestic abuse and parental substance misuse (Cleaver, Unell and Aldgate, 2011).