The Mental Health Connection Between Parents and Children

The old saying goes that apples do not fall far from their tree, and we see this idiom play out in the traits and features of our children.  Some of this is due to the environment we share with our children, or the “nurture” part of nature and nurture, and part is due to genetics.  Mental health concerns, including ADHD, anxiety, depression, substance abuse to name a few, have a high chance of being passed down to children.  Additionally, parents of children who have psychological challenges, including developmental differences, learning challenges, or a mood disorder have an increased need for support.

You can’t pour from an empty cup, and a parent who is coping with their own mental health struggles may have less resources to provide to their children.  This can then increase the risk factor for these children to grow up with their own mental health challenges.  There is tremendous value in a parent having gone through similar diagnosis and treatment, and a parent appropriately sharing their own personal experiences of resilience, coping, and treatment adherence can make a child feel safe, validated and understood.  However, not every member of a family will have the same diagnosis, and what worked for Mom’s panic attacks and anxiety may not be helpful for her daughter’s experience of depression and thoughts of self-harm.  While we already know that there is an increased risk factor in parents passing mental illness on to children, there is also an increased risk among siblings.  For example, one study showed an 8-17 fold increase in ASD diagnosis in younger siblings with an older sibling with autism.  For parents, having multiple children with mental health needs can increase the stressors immensely.

There is an obvious need for supporting parents of children with mental health challenges.  As treatment providers, we know that having parental buy in and consistency between home and treatment predicts the greater treatment outcomes.  For some treatment conditions, such as childhood anxiety, there may be an even similar benefit in direct work between the parent and therapist, as compared to the child seeing his or her own therapist.  We see that at Upside Therapy & Evaluation Center, where we offer caregiver support and Parent Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT).

A parent is also the advocate for the child, communicating between treatment providers, arranging for appropriate supports from the school and other environment, and communicating the needs and supports to other family members and friends as well.  Ongoing communication and check ins with a child’s therapist helps keep a parent informed.  However, there is a fine balance in which the child needs to feel that the therapy room is a safe and confidential place, where most things, excepting potential or real risks of harm, are kept confidential from parents and siblings.  Having family member supports such as parents in their own treatment, to process and cope with the challenges, and having good communication across a treatment team, can help keep this balance in line.

Mental illness does not exist in a vacuum, and the relationship between child and parent mental health is an important one.  There are many variations of support, and the individualized need of the family is a priority.  For more information on supporting a family member with mental health challenges, contact us.  We can help!