Studies from across cultures and geographies have reported that a diagnosis of mental illness in a parent increases their child’s risk of developing a similar mental illness.
However, parents living with mental illnesses can still ensure that their children have a happy and healthy childhood. In this article, we list some tips to help you move beyond your diagnosis and give your child the ideal environment to thrive in.
Connection Between Parents’ and Children’s Mental Health
According to a study by Leijdesdorff and colleagues in 2017, parents reporting poor mental health tend to have children who also report poorer physical and mental health.
There are various reasons why the mental health of parents and their offspring are connected. The first, of course, is genetic. Mental illness can run in families, and parents with mental illness can pass on their genetic makeup (which predisposes them to certain illnesses) to their children as well.
At the same time, a child’s primary introduction to the world usually happens through their parents. Parents with mental illnesses may be less affectionate, spend less time with their children, or react with inappropriate parenting behaviours such as anger, indifference, or being hyper-intrusive in the child’s life. Therefore, parents and their behaviours are very crucial for the child.
Nature, Nurture and Mental Illness
There is a famous discussion in the field of psychology around ‘nature versus nurture’. As the phrase suggests, it focuses on two important factors behind any person’s development:
Nature: What an individual is born with (primarily genetic influence from their parents)
Nurture: Factors that influence an individual’s development (such as early childhood experiences, parenting, etc.)
According to the same discussion, if parents are diagnosed with mental illness, it is all the more important to try and secure the ‘nurture’ part for the child.
Children tend to learn a lot by observing and imitating their parents or caregivers. Therefore, it’s important for parents to be very attentive to the relationship they share with their children, as the child’s experience during the formative years of his or her life could greatly define, what kind of an adult he or she will turn out to be.
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Tips to Provide a Mentally Healthy Environment for Your Child
Here are some helpful tips for parents that can be used to provide a nurturing and supportive environment for the children at home.
- Help them to find outlets for self-expression: Encourage your child to express and release their emotions through different mediums such as dance, music, writing, etc. Art is a great medium to find one’s voice and release and regulate emotions. Finding the right medium will help your child get in touch with their
- Encourage children’s play: Play has a very important role in children’s development and growth. When young children cannot express themselves in words, play offers them a safe space and platform. They can rely on inanimate objects and fictional situations to express themselves. It also helps them to exercise control and take decisions.
- Do fun activities together: A diagnosis of mental illness should not stop you from spending quality time with your children and showing them affection.
Whenever possible, plan events together and indulge in joint activities. You can plan game nights, karaoke nights, and movie nights together. You can also draw, cook and create together. These activities will be proof that you can still do things together and it will also help in enhancing the bond between you and the child.
4. Seek professional support: A psychotherapist can play a life-changing role in this scenario. A mental health professional is trained in dealing with emotional difficulties and can help your child by offering them a safe space to vent and talk about any questions/confusions they have.
You can also collaborate with a mental health professional for a family therapy session wherein all the members can decide the optimal way to go forward.
5. Healthy communication is always a successful recipe: Sometimes parents might choose not to disclose details of their mental and emotional struggles with their children. It’s okay not to share every tiny detail, but giving them relevant information will make the journey smoother, and will help the children feel involved and included in your life. You can seek help from your therapist on what is the best way to go forward with this family talk.
6. Make a safety plan: Having a safety plan or a crisis plan ready in action is always helpful. When you know you need time to cope with your own issues, you can rely on the safety plan. It can include the following things:
- A list of safe people that the child can reach out to
- Provision of necessary steps that they might need to take to support themselves
- Division of responsibilities
7. Introduce them to support groups/community meet-ups: Support groups are a great way to find people with common concerns. They are a great platform for people facing similar challenges to support and uplift each other.