How to support the children of parents with mental ill-health

By Chana Hughes,
updated on Dec 7, 2023

How to support the children of parents with mental ill-health

For children of those with mental illnesses, life can be tough. Which is why ensuring they have the right support is an important step

It is a huge and difficult challenge for an adult to have a mental illness. The group of people who are also affected, but who often go unnoticed, are the children of parents with mental illness, and in the UK there are estimated to be more than 3.4 million young people living with a parent who is mentally unwell. That means that in an average classroom, around eight children have a parent with mental health problems.

For children living with parental mental illness, life can be incredibly tough. Here are five tips on how to support them:

1. Explain well and explain again

Parental mental illness can be confusing. Sometimes children can blame themselves. It is important to develop an age-appropriate explanation for their parent’s behaviour, so that they can understand their parent better, and not feel too scared. Metaphors are often useful, and there are some helpful videos you can access online (visit the Our Time channel on YouTube). The act of explaining in itself also reassures children, so expect them to want to hear the explanation several times.

2. Call on an adult from outside the family for support

Children naturally learn how to make sense of the world through their parents. When a parent is mentally unwell, a child needs to understand that how they are reacting may not be a direct response to their environment, rather it is an expression of their mental illness. This is not easy for a child who is hard-wired to trust and take cues from their parents.

Having a supportive adult who is outside the family means that they can help orientate the child and give them some perspective. It also means that when the child is spending time with them they can hand over responsibility and behave in a carefree way. Children may not have many opportunities to do this at home if a parent is unwell. An independent adult can also advocate for a child, and speak up for their needs if required.

3. Find kids who are experiencing the same.

There is so much shame and stigma about mental illness, that it is often really difficult for children to share their experiences with their friends. They often feel isolated in their experiences, and different from their classmates. It is really helpful if children can meet other young people like them who are going through a similar situation with having parents with mental illness. The organisation Our Time has workshops throughout the country that work with the entire family when one or both parents are mentally ill. Many participants have said that meeting other children with parental mental illness made them feel that they were not alone, and gave them valuable support.

4. Make sure the child knows what to do in a crisis

Although it is not the job of a child to be responsible for a parent’s wellbeing, it is important to recognise that a child with a parent experiencing mental illness might find themselves being the first person to see a crisis develop. Children should have clear instructions on how to recognise signs that mum or dad needs help, and who to contact in a crisis situation so that they can call on the help that they need.

5. Don’t forget to celebrate the positives

Sometimes, parental mental illness can last for long periods of time, and managing their wellbeing can be overwhelming. As a family, it’s important to not lose sight of the children’s positive achievements, and take pride in the accomplishments and the things that everybody does well as a family. When a family is struggling, it is also helpful to give children healthy outlets outside the home so that they can build their sense of self-esteem, and their individual identity.

Having parents with mental illness can feel confusing, shameful, unfair, and difficult. It is not an easy burden to carry in addition to all the other stresses of growing up. But these steps help support children and boost their confidence during challenging times.

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