Parenting with a mental illness
When you're a parent with a mental illness, or someone in the family is struggling with their mental health, it can make supporting your child difficult. Here is our advice on what you can do and where you can get help.
One in four people are estimated to experience a mental health problem in the course of a year; they belong to families – they are parents, siblings, grandparents and other relatives. Many children will grow up with a main carer or close family member who has some kind of mental health difficulty.
Children who have a parent (or sibling) with a mental health problem
If you, or your child's co-parent have a mental health problem, it can be tough. To a child, an adult’s behaviour may be worrying, upsetting or even frightening. Young carers benefit from support from other family members and the adults around them, but their responsibilities can negatively impact on their progress at school or college.
Many parents suffering with mental health problems, illnesses or disorders spend a lot of energy trying to protect their children from the effects. It is important to know that often young people who grow up with a parent with a mental health problem, illness or disorder can develop into particularly positive, caring and understanding adults.
Others, however, may struggle with a range of difficulties around their parents’ (or siblings’) mental health problems, or drug and alcohol use, including the following:
- not understanding what is happening
- worrying that the mental health problem is their fault
- having to help a parent with medication or personal care
- not being regularly looked after or cared for
- having to look after or care for siblings
- trying to predict what mood their parent or sibling is going to be in
- being shouted at if their family member is very angry or upset
- being scared their parent or sibling will self-harm or commit suicide
- seeing their parent or sibling self-harming, taking drugs or drinking
- money problems if their parent is not able to work
- missing school if they need to look after their parent
- being separated if their parent is in hospital or not able to look after them
These are things that may really make a difference:
- Talk to your medical team and social worker if you have one and explain what your concerns are in full. If social services get involved, that does not mean they will take the child away from you – their role is to assess the situation and offer help and support to the family. Your child would only be taken into care with no other way to keep them safe.
- Encourage your child to talk about how they feel, what their worries are, how the mental illness in the family is affecting them. It is common for children in this situation to become withdrawn and unhappy.
- If you are not be able to be part of a discussion with your child, try to find another trusted adult who can help them open up. This could be another family member, teacher, counsellor or GP.
- Give your child clear information about what the parent or sibling is experiencing; this can help them to understand what is going on and that it is not their fault.
- Try to help the young person have at least some parts of life and routines that are normal for their age group. Their education, their friendships, their sense of identity, their confidence and their ‘fun times’ can suffer very badly when they have a family member with a mental health problem, especially if they have become the main carer for a parent.
- Contact your child’s school teacher or college tutor to let them know what is going on and to see what support the school/college can offer.
- Contact your local young carers’ group and online support groups if your child has taken on a carer role in the family.
- If you think a child or young person whose parent or sibling is mentally ill is having emotional, behavioural or mental health problems themselves, contact your GP for help.
Where can I get help?
- Provides free, 24/7 crisis support across the UK if you are experiencing a mental health crisis
- If you need urgent help text YM to 85258
- All texts are answered by trained volunteers, with support from experienced clinical supervisors
- Texts are free from EE, O2, Vodafone, 3, Virgin Mobile, BT Mobile, GiffGaff, Tesco Mobile and Telecom Plus.
Mental health information, support and rights on the website.
Two helplines are available, Infoline and Legal Advice, Monday to Friday, 09:00-18:00
Infoline can provide information on: types of mental health problem, where to get help, drug &
alternative treatments and advocacy.
- Infoline: 0300 123 3393 (Monday to Friday, 09:00-18:00)
- Text: 86463 (09:00-18:00)
- Email: [email protected]
- Legal Advice line provides legal information and general advice on mental health related law covering:mental health, mental capacity, community care, human rights and discrimination/equality related to mental health issues. Call 0300 466 6463 (Monday to Friday, 09:00-18:00)
- Email: [email protected]
- Provides care and emotional support for people affected by mental illness, their families and carers
- SANEline: 0300 304 7000 (16:30-22:30 every day)
- Peer support Forum
Provides mental health advice, information and support plus local service finder.
- Advice line: 0300 5000 927 (Monday to Friday, 10:00-14:00)
- A range of downloadable factsheets
- Support for anyone whose life is affected by someone else’s drinking.
- Helpline: 020 7403 0888
- Local meetings search feature on their website
- Al-anon also offers Alateen - a separate support service for 12-17 year olds, who have a problem drinker in their lives
- Infoline: 020 7593 2070
Nacoa (National Association for Children of Alcoholics)
- Information, advice and support for everyone affected by a parent’s drinking.
- Helpline: 0800 358 3456 (Fri, Sat, Mon -12:00-19:00; Tue, Wed, Thu –12:00-21:00)
- Email: [email protected]
- Scotland’s leading mental health charity providing information and support services.
- Provides free, safe, anonymous online support for young people - counselling, messaging, personal stories. Only available in certain parts of England and Wales.
- Children can confidentially call, email, or chat online about any problem big or small.
- Freephone helpline: 0800 1111 (open 24hrs)
- Sign up for a childline account to message a counsellor anytime without email.