Parental mental illness: Building understanding and resilience in children

Parental mental illness: Building understanding and resilience in children

12 March 2014
Parental mental illness: Building understanding and resilience in children

Brad Morgan describes the experience of COPMI, and developing resources and training for the professionals who work with them.

Practitioner’s Corner is a column on CFCA Connect where practitioners can discuss work-related issues and new resources, and share their insight and practice wisdom. Please contact us if you would like to contribute an article.

In this article Brad Morgan, Director of  Children of Parents with a Mental Illness (COPMI), discusses the experiences of COPMI in developing resources and training in collaboration with families who have a parent with a mental illness and the professionals that work with them.

Over one million Australian children live in families where a parent is experiencing mental illness. As a population group, they are at an increased risk of experiencing a range of health, developmental, social and emotional difficulties. The reasons for this are complex and outcomes differ significantly for each child. What is often missing in discussions about the ‘risks’ in children of parents with a mental illness is our knowledge of child and family resilience, and the role that parents can play in strengthening the processes that assist children and families to cope.

Building understanding

Children are generally very sensitive to what is happening in the relationships around them. When a parent is experiencing mental illness, children can often describe the obvious changes that they notice in their parent’s behaviour (e.g. sleeping more, short temper, unusual behaviours and paranoid beliefs). They also pick up on subtle changes that can occur, such as changes in roles and relationships, and the emotional atmosphere of the family environment.

Most often, children are not informed of why these changes are happening and will attempt to make sense of them with the limited information to which they do have access. Children may misinterpret what is happening and they often feel personally responsible.

As a consequence, children may end up responding and behaving in a range of ways including taking responsibility for the care of their parent or other family members, hypervigilance (behaving ‘too’ well), challenging behaviours, or avoidance of the difficulties in the family. On the other hand, children who understand what is happening and have open communication and support from parents and other trusted adults to help make sense of what they notice often cope better, are more likely to pursue their personal goals and have higher levels of resilience.

A powerful way to strengthen child resilience is to support parents and children to communicate with each other about family members experiences of parental mental illness. As a start, this might involve offering parents information and resources to help them talk with their children. Children also benefit from having trusted adults outside the family that they can talk to. This might be you, or you could talk to children and parents about another person who could play this role. For some families, assistance from a professional to start the family conversation can be helpful—professionals may benefit from understanding evidence-based methods to support children and families. These methods often assist families to communicate about parental mental illness. For example, the Family Focus intervention provides professionals with a structured way to strengthen family communication in families where a parent experiences mental illness.

Promoting child safety and security

There can be times when a parent experiences a mental health emergency or when symptoms of mental illness become so overwhelming that they cannot be present, or are unable to take care of their children. These situations are stressful for all family members, and can be even more frightening for parents and children when they don’t know what is happening to the affected family member.

Supporting families to be ready for these stressful times by talking about and developing care plans (also known as safety plans) can be a simple and practical way for parents and children to think about what they want to happen during these difficult times.

These care plans can include emergency contacts, details of family or friends who can look after the children, and information that will assist others to support and care for them. Templates for care plans areavailable online.

Assisting parents to strengthen child and family resilience

A number of evidence-based approaches to strengthening child and family resilience where a parent experiences mental illness have been developed. A core component of many of these interventions is to support parents to reflect on their child’s strengths, the worries and concerns that they have about their children, and to partner with and empower them to identify ways that they can support and strengthen their child and family’s resilience.

This can occur with parents or children alone, as a family or with a combination of these options. What appears to the most important role of the professional in these approaches is to spend the time understanding what each family member needs and then working with them to identify the information, resources and options that they can apply or access that can strengthen their child and family’s resilience.

Free information, resources and training to assist professional to support children and families where a parent is experiencing mental illness are available from the COPMI website.

The feature image is by Spirit-Fire, CC BY 2.0.

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