Advice to Teachers

Sad student

Here’s some important things you need to know as a teacher of a child with parental mental illness…

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What is the affect on my student’s participation? 

First, bear in mind that parental mental illness may not affect a student’s school participation. Note the following:

  • Parental mental illness may be well managed through medication or other treatments and may have little impact on your student.
  • Many parents will have mild or short-lived mental health problems or illness, and their children may not be unduly affected.
  • Students may see school as a place where they can ‘take time out’ from their family difficulties and simply focus on participation and learning.
  • Many students will be able to effectively put into practice the excellent skills and abilities they’ve already developed from living through adversities in their lives.

Second, if a student of a parent with a mental illness is having difficulty at school, it’s wise to remain open to other explanations for those difficulties. They may have little or no link to the student’s family circumstances.

Any marked changes in manner or behaviour, or any persisting difficulties are triggers for school staff to explore the need for additional support for a student. There is a range of indicators that may alert you to the student having difficulties relating to their family situation including:

  • absences from school
  • incomplete homework
  • difficulty meeting work deadlines
  • periods of poor concentration or extreme tiredness
  • difficulties relating with peers and others
  • disturbed or self-destructive behaviour
  • or the student being involved in teasing or bullying,

…but many young people will not be so obviously affected.

Remember there may be other causes of difficult behaviour

It is important to note that the indicators above may also be observed in students with a range of other individual or family changes or problems , eg a student or parent with a:

  • learning disorder
  • an alcohol or substance abuse problem
  • gambling addiction
  • changing family structures and circumstances
  • personal physical or psychological health issues 

In this case it may be difficult to identify the cause of the student’s difficulties. School staff may also never learn that the cause of a student’s difficulties are related to parental mental illness because:

  • Many parents and children choose not to reveal parental mental illness to others (often due to the stigma still attached to mental illness in society).
  • The parent or child may be concerned about the confidentiality of information disclosed to you.
  • Some younger children simply do not realise that their parent is unwell.
  • The parent or child may not believe the parent has a mental illness.
  • The illness may not be diagnosed.
  • Some parents (and their children) may try to keep their illness a secret, fearing that the children will be taken into care.

Schools do not always need to know the cause of a student’s difficulties at school – what is important is that they have systems to offer support to enhance the student’s successful participation at school.

How can I deal with a student’s problems if I’m unsure of the cause?

If you can acknowledge that a student is having difficulty with the curriculum (no matter what the cause) – you’re probably doing a great job already.

All children and families are different and it’s important that you address the individual issues as they present themselves to you. Utilise the procedures and practices within your school to assist with the most common difficulties students encounter -whatever the reason.  For example:

  • Is there a school policy that covers negotiation of work timelines in the face of individual or family difficulties? (if so, are students fully aware of it?)
  • Do students have access to a ‘homework’ location outside of their home?
  • Is there a clear policy about student support and confidentiality so students know who can be approached for support and what is likely to happen if they do this?
  • Are there strategies to support hungry children or students with other care needs?
  • Can students access counselling services if necessary?

What should I do if a parent or student reveals information about parental mental illness?

  • Listen in a non-judgmental way and value each person’s experience.
  • Assure the child/parent that they are not alone and that many parents have mental health problems at some time in their life.
  • Ensure confidentiality – except in situations where you hold concerns for the safety of the child, parent or others. In this case you should refer the family to your local child protection service or speak to your service or centre director.
  • Assure the parent  that:
    • You only need to know how the parental illness may impinge on the child’s attendance or behaviour and how the centre/staff can offer support where appropriate.
    • That information will remain confidential and will only be provided to staff who the parent believes need to know in order to assist the child or family.
    • Other families will not be informed by staff except in the unlikely event that the parent expressly requests this to occur.
  • They would be wise to plan for times when they may be unwell.
    • A child care plan for ongoing care of the child should the parent become unwell or require hospitalisation is extremely important. It can be shared with their family or other support network, GP, health worker and the early childhood centre where relevant.
    • Depending upon their age and comprehension level, it may be useful for -children to be involved in determining where possible what will happen to them in such a situation.
    • A plan can help reassure children about things such a where they will be living, who will look after them and their pets and how they’ll maintain their regular routines.
    • See COPMI’s Child Care Plan for a downloadable example plan for the child/young people.
    • The COPMI site also has a downloadable example Baby Care Plan suitable for children under 2 years of age.
  • Ask the parent about their own and their child’s socialisation needs (e.g. Are they involved in any activities? Do they have any friends?)
  • If they wish, help them meet other parents or direct them to local services. Reinforce the value of children having socialisation and play experiences as well.
  • Help correct any obvious misconceptions the child may have about their parents’ mental illness.  For example, young children often mistakenly believe that they are the cause of their parent’s illness and/or that changing their behaviour will cause their parent to be well or ill.
  • Refer to the Royal College of Psychiatry Fact Sheet for Teachers No. 17 and ‘Family Talk’ booklet regarding common questions children.
  • Encourage your student or parent to speak to an appropriate support service if major difficulties are identified. This may be a school counsellor, psychologist, the year level coordinator or school principal or a local community health or parenting support service.
  • Encourage the student/parent to realise that all families are different and that there’s a lot to be celebrated about difference and the unique skills and experiences that students living with illness in their family bring to their school life.

NOTE:

The following issues may be best explored with the family by a senior early childhood worker (e.g. Child Care Centre Director) or support service staff such as psychologists, social workers or others with counselling skills.

Early childhood workers can suggest that the parent access these services and assist them to do so if necessary. 

  • Ask about safety
    e.g. Does the parent ever feel that their child has felt unsafe or scared because of their parent’s illness? If so – do they have a plan for what to do if it happens again or to prevent it reoccurring?
    See the reference to planning above. Reinforce protection planning with the child if they are able to comprehend simple safety measures their parent may have put in place (e.g. go to a neighbour’s house or direct dial to relative’s phone numbers).

NB CHILD PROTECTION: Check the mandatory child protection requirements in your state but if you have concerns about the safety and well-being of a child as a result of the parental mental health problem and/ treatment for it – contact your local child protection service.

  • Reinforce the parent’s valuable role with their child.
    • Help the parent reflect on their strengths as a parent and those of their family/support network.
    • Reinforce the fact that all parents find the task of parenting stressful at times and that they need to especially take care of themselves in order to parent as best as they can.
    • Reinforce the importance of early attachment.
    • Point people with a mental illness who are parents of young babies to the COPMI booklet ‘The Best for Me and My Baby’.
    • For families with older children point them to COPMI booklet ‘Family Talk’.
    • After periods of illness some parents may experience loss of skills or confidence in their parenting so increased support and encouragement may be required at this time.
  • Ask about areas where individuals may require support in their parenting role. Local support services may be able to assist the family with domestic chores, respite etc. to support their parenting – Phone Commonwealth Carelink Centre for information about local services (Ph: 1800 052 222).
  • Parenting partners may be able to gain support and information about services though the Carers Resource Centre (Ph: 1800 242 636).
  • Help the child (and/or family) access information about mental illness (See listing of age appropriate books and videos).
  • If a child has behavioural problems that don’t seem to be improving, seek specialist help. They may require referral to the local child and adolescent mental health service. They may value the chance to talk about their parent’s illness, and their fears, with a professional who is familiar with these things.
    They may also need help in overcoming their own emotional and behavioural problems. However, suggesting the child be referred to a mental health service when a parent has a mental illness must be done sensitively as it may invoke strong feelings of fear or panic.
  • If you or the parent need information relating to family law go to the Family Relationships Online website provided by the Australian Government at or contact the Family Relationships Advice Line on 1800 050 321.

Don’t assume that mental illness always affects people’s ability to do a great job in parenting. Many people provide a supportive and nurturing family environment for their children despite very challenging circumstances.

See also