Poor parental mental health

Many parents/carers who experience mental illness are excellent parents. With the right support, it’s perfectly possible to manage mental health issues without it affecting parenting.

However, research does suggest that poor parental mental health can be a significant risk factor for the development of mental health problems in children.

Often, it’s a combination of factors that leads poor parental mental health to undermine children’s wellbeing, such as: a child’s temperament, their social and emotional skills, whether they feel overwhelmed by carer responsibilities, what other risks they face in their environment, how much a parent’s ill-health affects their ability to respond sensitively and consistently to a child’s needs, and the extent to which a parent/carer has wider support to buffer children from cycles of ill health. 

Children who care for a parent who has mental health difficulties are known as young carers.

Spotting when parental ill health might be affecting a child’s ability to thrive

Children spend a lot of their time at school. Staff can often be the first to pick up when a child is facing difficulties at home – either through behaviour, their relationships in school or through problems with focus and learning. 

Safeguarding guidance stresses the important role that schools have in taking stock of child and family strengths and risks, and in identifying difficulties and mobilising early support.

Some signs that a younger child may be struggling when their parent is unwell include:

  • A child withdrawing into themselves and becoming anxious or frustrated.
  • Sudden changes in concentration or educational performance.
  • Changes in attendance patterns (linked to fear of leaving an unwell parent), school refusal, being late.
  • Other behaviour changes – particularly longer-term challenging behaviour.
  • A change in how organised and ready for school they are.
  • Physical health problems.
  • Frequent unexplained angry outbursts.
  • Tiredness (often due to nightmares or anxiety).

Protective factors: what schools can do

Many changes you might see in children, and the action you can take, will be very similar to those noted for other risk factors affecting children’s mental health and wellbeing. 

  • Notice changes and find out more:
    • Ask children if they are OK. This helps them feel less alone, helps you understand whether a child’s wellbeing is deteriorating and helps link to early support.
    • Children may find it hard to talk about a parent’s illness. They may feel embarrassed, frightened or confused. Talk about similarities between being physically unwell and mentally unwell to help a child avoid stigma. If appropriate, help them learn more about their parent’s illness.
    • There are some useful books which explore this issue.
  • Talk to parents/carers early if worried about a child. Focusing on the child’s needs can help parents/carers disclose difficulties and get help.
  • Even when a parent/carer is getting help, services may not focus on the child’s needs even though they may be struggling:
    • Use school meet and greets and routine contacts to notice how parents/carers are doing.
    • Keep an eye on whether pupils are becoming isolated from friends at school. Use of circle time might help to increase feelings of belonging and reduce isolation.
    • See every parent/carer contact (even if it’s a difficult exchange) as an opportunity to support protective factors, so they can work with you to help their child flourish and learn.
    • Work with parents/carers to explore how the school might keep a watchful eye on a pupil’s wellbeing during cycles of mental illness.
    • Focus on family strengths, rather than problems.
    • Know your broader local health and social landscape of support for children and for parents/carers.

What else can schools do?

  • Ensure that your school has programmes or curriculum-linked activity in place to develop children’s social and emotional skills – with these skills being further developed across the curriculum.
  • Make sure the whole-school environment communicates non-stigmatising messages about mental health.
  • Children whose parents have mental health difficulties may benefit from further help (e.g. counselling or community support).
  • Positive relationships in the classroom/school built on trust, safety and security promote pupil wellbeing and provide the protective benefit of a strong relationship with a healthy adult.
  • Schools can be important places to help parents get the support they need to make changes, so that they, in turn, can help their children. Staff should try and engage with parents/carers whenever they can and be a potential source of help, signposting them to appropriate support.
  • If a child is showing signs of behavioural problems, parenting programmes such as Triple P and Incredible Years can help, and can also lead to improvements in common mental health problems for parents.
  • Some children will need a little extra help, either through school pastoral care/counselling support, through referral to the school nurse, through support from local young carer groups, through discussion with your additional learning needs lead or through referral to community-based support (e.g. community counselling, specialist CAMHS, voluntary sector and family support and children’s services).

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