Be The Best Parent You Can Be
Mental health conditions can affect any person regardless of gender, age, health status and income, and that includes people who have or want to have children of their own. Parenting is both greatly rewarding and a daunting task for anyone, but it poses some particular challenges for people with a mental health condition. Here, you will find information about parenting and mental illness, where to go to get help for you and your family, and how to support yourself and your children.
Everyone can improve on their parenting skills. Consider taking a parenting class to learn the basics and lessen the anxiety of being a parent. Parentingwell.org is a web site especially for parents with mental illness. It includes an online community, tips and tools and other resources. For perspective on all of the roles being a parent entails, visit the Parenting section of the Temple University Collaborative on Community Inclusion website.
What Impact Does A Parent’s Mental Illness Have On Children?
The effect of a parent’s mental illness on children is varied and unpredictable. Although parental mental illness poses biological, psychosocial and environmental risks for children, not all children will be negatively affected, or affected in the same way. The fact that a parent has mental illness alone is not sufficient to cause problems for the child and family. Rather, it is how the mental health condition affects the parent’s behavior as well as familial relationships that may cause risk to a child. The age of onset, severity and duration of the parent’s mental illness, the degree of stress in the family resulting from the illness, and most importantly, the extent to which parents’ symptoms interfere with positive parenting, such as their ability to show interest in their children, will determine the level of risk to a child. The child’s age and stage of development is also important.
Will My Child Have A Mental Health Condition As Well?
Mental health conditions are not contagious, but research shows that some mental health conditions may have a genetic link. Bipolar disorder, for example, has long been shown to run in families. Other people may pass on hereditary traits that make a mental health disorder more likely without passing on a specific disorder.
Because you have a mental health condition does not mean that your child will have a mental health condition. But because of your own experiences, it may help you be better attuned to the psychological challenges that parenting can bring.
Children whose parents have a mental illness are at risk for developing social, emotional and/or behavioral problems. An inconsistent and unpredictable family environment, often found in families in which a parent has mental illness, contributes to a child’s risk. Other factors that place all children at risk, but particularly increase the vulnerability of children whose parents have a mental illness, include:
- Occupational or marital difficulties
- Poor parent-child communication
- Parent’s co-occurring substance abuse disorder
- Openly aggressive or hostile behavior by a parent
- Single-parent families
Families at greatest risk are those in which mental illness, a child with their own difficulties, and chronically stressful family environments are all present. Many of these factors, however, can be reduced through preventive interventions. For example, poor parent-child communication can be improved through skills training, and marital conflict can be reduced through couple’s therapy.
The Prevention Perspective
Whether or not children of parents with mental illness will develop social, emotional, or behavioral problems depends on a number of factors. These include the child’s genetic vulnerability, the parent’s behavior, the child’s understanding of the parent’s illness, and the degree of family stability (for example, the number of parent-child separations). Preventive interventions aimed at addressing risk factors and increasing children’s protective factors increase the likelihood that they will be resilient, and grow and develop in positive ways. Effective prevention strategies help increase family stability, strengthen parents’ ability to meet their children’s needs, and minimize children’s exposure to negative manifestations of their parent’s illness.
Increasing a child’s protective factors helps develop his or her resiliency. Resilient children understand that they are not responsible for their parent’s difficulties, and are able to move forward in the face of life’s challenges. It is always important to consider the age and stage of development when supporting children. Protective factors for children include:
- A parent’s warm and supportive relationship with his or her children
- Help and support from immediate and extended family members
- A sense of being loved by their parent
- Positive self-esteem
- Good coping skills
- Positive peer relationships
- Interest in and success at school
- Healthy engagement with adults outside the home
- An ability to articulate their feelings
- Parents who are functioning well at home, at work, and in their social relationships
- Parental employment