Parenting is one of the most profound, life-altering shifts in a human’s experience. It’s not surprising that it can trigger mental health issues or make already existing mental health struggles more pronounced. Mental health can affect the entire family, particularly children. Stress, anxiety, and depression are not uncommon among parents, particularly mothers during the early years of parenting. For those struggling, it can be difficult to hear about all the ways that parental mental illness can negatively impact their children. It’s a tough conversation but an important one.
The degree to which a parents’ mental illness affects their child is variable. Research from the WHO demonstrates a clear link between a parent’s mental health and the physical, cognitive and psychosocial development of their child. However, it isn’t the parent’s mental illness alone that affects the child. The implications of parental mental illness on children occur depending on how a parent’s mental health affects their capacity to care for and meet the emotional needs of the child. Mental illness can hinder a parent from interacting, playing, and fostering a secure attachment with their child but this isn’t always the case – and can occur with great variation.
How are children affected by their parents’ mental health?
A recent Longitudinal Study of Australian Children found that parental mental health in early childhood is directly correlated to long-term mental health outcomes for children. While the inherited aspect of mental illness may be at play, the study found that it’s more likely the environment the child experiences that has long-lasting implications.
This can be a tough pill to swallow for parents battling mental illness. An estimated 23% of children are being raised by parents struggling with their mental health. Rates of mental illness are even higher for single parents. Single parents are more likely to experience increased levels of stress, anxiety and depression. However, not all of those children will be affected by their parents’ mental illness in the same ways and children with mentally ill parents can absolutely thrive with the right support in place for both the child and the parent.
Can a mother’s mental health impact a child’s development? The short answer: it depends. Depression and anxiety during pregnancy has been linked to poorer health outcomes for babies including low birth weight, respiratory issues, and has been found to affect fetus’ neural development. Maternal mental illness can also lead to less successful breastfeeding outcomes.
While research is still nascent, there’s also evidence that maternal anxiety and depression during pregnancy and early childhood can be linked to attention difficulties in children and ADHD.
Types of discipline
Parents with mental illness have been found to use harsher forms of discipline with their children. This may include more yelling or corporal punishment. Mental illness can make it more challenging to access the tools for self regulation that are required for more gentle, collaborative approaches to parenting. According to Emerging Minds, “16% of parents with poor mental health reported arguing or yelling quite a lot or very much with their children, compared to 8% of parents with better mental health.”
Not all parents struggling with mental illness will discipline in ways that create issues for their children. The good news? A mentally ill parent who is able to access more positive forms of discipline can avoid impacting their child negatively.
Children require intense levels of connection in their first three years of life. This is when they build their attachment to their primary caregiver. Healthy attachment is vital to long-term mental health and successful relationships. Attachment patterns develop due to both verbal and nonverbal communication. Being attuned to a child’s needs and responding appropriately to them is an important piece of the attachment puzzle. Issues can arise when a parent struggles to meet their child’s emotional and physical needs.
Children need consistent attention in the form of caretaking and play in the early years. A mentally ill parent may not be able to show up in this way. This can lead to mental health issues for the child and the development of less adaptive attachment patterns. Just because one parent is not able to show up in this way doesn’t mean the child can’t develop healthy attachment. The child can still develop healthy patterns if they have another parent or consistent caregivers that are attuned and responsive. In the case of a single parent with mental illness, this can be more challenging due to the lack of multiple caregivers.
Inheriting mental illness
Children of mentally ill parents often wonder whether they can inherit their parent’s mental illness. Mental-illness is often hereditary. According to the NIH, “many psychiatric disorders tend to run in families, suggesting potential genetic roots. Such disorders include autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, major depression and schizophrenia.” But genetic predisposition doesn’t tell the whole story. While children of mentally ill parents are at a higher risk of developing mental disorders, there are a lot of other factors that play a role.
Scientists use the term “multifactorial inheritance” to describe the ways in which a child may or may not inherit a genetic disorder. Just like a child with a diabetic parent isn’t guaranteed to develop diabetes, a child with a mentally ill parent isn’t automatically destined to follow in their parent’s footsteps. Other factors that can contribute to (or negate) the risk of developing a genetic mental illness include trauma, emotional harm from other adults/peers, and substance abuse.
If a child is predisposed genetically to inheriting a mental illness, there are important steps families can take to help:
- Early intervention with therapy
- Educating children and caregivers about signs to look for
- Periodic check-ins with a qualified professional
- Supporting parents’ coping with mental illness
Supporting parents with mental illness
Mental illness in parents alone is not a guarantee that children will inherit parents’ mental illness. And just because a parent is struggling with mental-illness doesn’t mean that their children are doomed by any means. In fact, with the right supports in place, children can thrive with mentally ill parents.
Stigmas around mental illness can make it challenging for parents to reach out for help. Parents may feel incredible amounts of shame around their struggles and guilt for not being able to show up for their children the way the child needs. It’s important to seek help if you’re struggling. Parents can help their children avoid being affected long term by accessing healthy coping skills, medication if needed, parenting resources, and ongoing monitoring of symptoms. With at least 28% of parents reporting experiencing anxiety and depression, it’s vital that we as a society support parents who need help.
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