5.3 Children of Parents with Mental Health Problems
See the Family Approach Protocol and Toolkit for more information.
For national guidance, see the NSPCC guidance on how to help children living with parents with mental health problems.
Parents with mental ill health may neglect their own and their children’s physical, emotional and social needs. Their children may have caring responsibilities, which are inappropriate to their age and may have an adverse effect on their development. Some forms of mental ill health may blunt parents’ emotions and feelings or cause them to be ‘unavailable’ or not responsive to the child; or to behave in bizarre or violent ways towards their children or environment.
Impact of parental mental health problems on children
The NSPCC lists the potential impact on children when living with parents with mental health problems. These include:
- increased risk of developing behaviour problems such as physical aggression by the time they reach school age
- risk of developing mental health difficulties
- taking on a caring role, providing emotional and social support, basic household chores and more intimate tasks such as nursing or bathing their parents
- demands of caring may lead to fewer opportunities to have fun and build friendships, disruption of education, educational underachievement and reduced life chances
- constant worry about their parents' or carers' health and wellbeing and denial of their own needs and feelings
- distress if faced with frightening situations such as a parent's suicide attempt, overdose or volatile behaviour
- a lower standard of living or financial hardship if their parent's illness makes it difficult for them to work
- embarrassment or shame over their parents' or carers' condition, limiting their friendships and social interaction due to the social stigma attached to mental illness
- bullying and social isolation
- separation from parents or carers by children's services or the parent's hospitalisation
- in the most serious cases, children may suffer abuse or neglect from a parent or carer with a mental health problem.
Action to take
A referral to Children's social care should be made where it is believed that a child of a parent with mental health problems may have suffered, or is likely to suffer significant harm.
- NSPCC, Parental mental health: How to help children living with parents with mental health problems
- Think child, think parent, think family: a guide to parental mental health and child welfare
- Stress and resilience factors in parents with mental health problems and their children