Up to 1 in 5 children and young people in Australia have a parent with a mental illness. Parents with a mental illness face the same challenges as any other parent, while at the same time also coping with the challenges that come with having a mental illness.
Parenting ability is moderated by the nature of the parent’s diagnosis and the severity and chronicity of their illness, as well as the presence of other difficulties (like substance use, or domestic and family violence), and the timing of the illness compared with the child’s age and stage of development. The impact of a parent’s mental illness on a child can depend on the child’s own characteristics, like their temperament, and social and cognitive skills, alongside of the family context and the broader system of safety and support around the child (Reupert, Maybery and Kowalenko, 2013; Reupert and Maybery, 2015).
Meeting the needs of children and families is enhanced by learning more about what family life is like where a parent lives with mental health issues.
To do this:
- learn about the common symptoms related to the parent’s mental health issue, how these can impact parenting, and possible consequences for the child
- talk with the parent about their individual experiences and story
- talk with the parent about how they think their illness symptoms impact on their parenting and on their child
- talk with the child about their experience of living in the household and their parent.
Information about common mental health issues
Follow the links below to find out about some of the mental health conditions you might see in your work with families:
Impacts of parental mental illness on children
The symptoms of a mental illness can affect a parent's feeling, thinking and behaviour. Mental illness symptoms that can impact on a child include:
- emotional unavailability
- under responsiveness or over responsiveness
- being overly critical
- being less happy
- being less active
- poor motivation
- irritability and anger.
(Bromfield, Lamont, Parker, & Horsfall, 2010).
For a child, parental mental illness can increase the risk of neglect and physical and emotional abuse. Risks include:
- their basic care needs might go unmet
- their emotional needs may not be attended to, or attended to unpredictably
- if the parent is reactive or punitive, there may be a risk of physical or emotional abuse
- attachment difficulties
- the child taking on a significant caring role of their parent and siblings, causing them stress and interrupting their development
- they may develop their own mental health difficulties
- they might be exposed to reckless behaviour of their parent and harmful consequences could arise.
(Bromfield, Lamont, Parker, & Horsfall, 2010)
Watch the video below on ‘Parenting with personality disorder’. The video shows that symptoms of mental illness can sometimes get in the way of a parent being the kind of parent they want to be. Symptoms of mental health difficulties can make it hard for parents to keep the needs of their child in mind.
Be advised this video contains scenes of fictional self-harm and conflict that can be distressing to watch. The characters are actors and the story is fictitious.
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