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A child’s experience

Children are both adaptable and vulnerable. When life is tough at home, a child will often develop ways of coping. Seek to understand the child’s experience of life with a parent who has a mental illness and learn about a child’s coping skills to understand what further supports the chid may need.

Tip

Do not assume that a child is less vulnerable or does not require further support regarding their parent’s mental health because they have an existing set of coping skills or appear to have well developed resilience.

The more adversity a child experiences, the higher the risk of ongoing physical and mental health problems as adults (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 2019). This is true even of children who show incredible resilience.

Further reading

Learn more about the effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) from the Centers for disease control and prevention or view ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’ in the Overview section of the practice kit Disability.

Understand what’s happening in a child’s life

'Sometimes Billy’s mum can’t get out of bed. When this happens Billy makes himself and his little sister Jessie breakfast and gets himself ready for school. At school, Billy can’t stop thinking about whether Jessie is okay. His head and tummy begins to hurt and he can’t focus on learning or having fun. When he gets home he makes his mum a cup of tea and tells her stories to try and cheer her up, but this doesn't always work. Billy doesn’t know why he can’t make his mum happy. He wonders if he’s done something to make her so sad'.

Find out about a child’s life to understand ways to support them. Follow the points below to understand a child’s experiences, resources, strengths and strategies to help to think about how to support the child:

Find out about the child’s strengths and resources

  • What is going well for the child?
  • Are they able to talk to safe adults about what is worrying them?
  • How are they doing at school?
  • Do they have a hobby or interest that they are passionate about?
  • Does the child have a basic understanding of their parent’s mental health difficulties?
  • Does the child understand their parent’s illness is not their fault?
  • Do they have connections with other people?
  • Do they have friends that they can access and who they spend time with?
  • Are there supportive family or community members the child can talk to or who visit the home regularly?
  • Are they attending school, a church or other community organisation?

Be curious about the child’s strategies

  • How does the child respond to their parent when their parent is well?
  • How does the child respond to their parent when their parent is unwell?
  • Has the child suddenly become really interested or disinterested in school work or their hobbies because things are hard at home? Are they trying to distract themselves or get some extra attention?
  • Are they using alcohol or other drugs to help cope with their feelings?
  • Have you asked with respect and curiosity about why the child might be doing the things they do?
  • What does the child think they need in order to manage or feel more supported?

Children have different strategies for coping with their parent’s mental health issues or for managing their lives when their parents become unwell. You may notice a child taking care of their parents or siblings. This may happen when a parent is unwell, as the child attempts to keep things in order. It may also happen when the parent is well, as the child attempts to keep their parent stable.

A child may also look for things to distract them from what is happening at home. Sometimes these will be healthy distractions, such as engaging in a fun hobby. Other times their behaviour may place them at risk of harm, such as spending significant amounts of time away from home, or alcohol and other drug use. Whether the child’s strategies are healthy or risky, understand what motivates their behaviour.

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