How you can help

You play an important role in making sure children with parental mental illness are cared for, protected and have an opportunity to develop in line with peers.

How will I know if a child in my care is affected by their parent’s mental illness? 

Why you may not recognise difficulties

  • Stigma attached to mental illness means many parents and children will choose not to disclose their challenges to others.
  • The parent may not wish to disclose as they are concerned about the confidentiality of the information.
  • Many younger children simply do not realise that their parent is unwell as their knowledge of adult behaviour may be limited.
  • The parent may not believe they have a mental illness.
  • Some parents may wish to protect their children from worrying about the mental illness and so keep important information from them.
  • Some parents (and their children) try to keep their illness a secret, fearing that the children may be taken into care.

Obvious indicators of difficulties

  • Failure to thrive.
  • No sign of distress or protest when the young child is separated from the parent.
  • Poor attendance and/or interaction with others at early childhood programmes (e.g. child care, playgroup, pre-school).
  • Regression of development.
  • Emotional immaturity.
  • Disturbed or self-destructive behaviour.

Bear in mind…

The indicators listed above may also be observed in children with a range of other individual or family changes or problems 

  • e.g. a child or parent with a learning disorder
  • a parent with an alcohol or substance abuse problem
  • changing family structures and circumstances
  • personal physical or psychological health issues

What can I do?

Where a child or parent reveals information about an on-going mental illness – here’s what you can do:

  • 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 family 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 as where they will be living, who will look after them and their pets and how they’ll maintain their regular routines.
  • See the ‘Supporting Our Family’ kit for a downloadable example plan for the child http://www.howstat.com/comic . This kit also contains a sample letter for parents to inform their child’s school about their illness – this may be able to be adapted for other early childhood settings. A Western Australian version of this package is available from the WA Office of Mental Health website.
  • The COPMI site also has a downloadable example Baby 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.    

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.

Partnerships & Collaboration

Each family in which a parent has a mental illness has unique strengths and needs which may change over time and as the child enters different developmental stages.

Workers involved with the family from fields such as education, justice, child protection and health need to work together with the family and the family’s support network to ensure that services provided meet the family’s needs and in particular the needs of the children.