Parenting and mental health

Being a parent with a mental illness can be hard. But with the right support, you can be a good parent while managing your mental health.

*Last updated 15 June 2021

Many parents with mental health problems can care for their children in a safe and loving way. But sometimes you might need extra support from family, friends or healthcare professionals to get you through difficult times. There’s no shame in needing extra help as a parent, whatever the reasons for it.

How your mental health problem might affect your parenting

All parents face challenges, but if you have a mental health problem you may face additional difficulties.

Mental health problems can vary in terms of how severe they are and how they affect you. You may need regular extra support, or you may be fine for long stretches and have periods when you need more help. Or other stressful life experiences may make things more challenging: for example, money problems or a relationship breakdown can negatively affect your mental health.

When you’re unwell, you may find it difficult to:

  • deal with the daily challenges of parenting, for example if you have low energy because of depression or feel very worried because of anxiety
  • manage your mood or emotions around your children
  • care for your children, either physically or emotionally
  • manage your children’s behaviour or set boundaries for them.

You may also experience stigma or discrimination from other people making assumptions or judgements about mental health.

You might need to ask your children for help, for example with getting younger siblings ready for school or doing housework. This can make you feel guilty, and may affect the amount of free time they have.

Looking after yourself

It can be hard to seek help as a parent. You might worry about being judged or tell yourself you have to keep going on your own. Try not to put pressure on yourself to be a ‘perfect parent’. Remember all parents have hard times and there’s no shame in needing extra support.

Some of these ideas may help.

Take care of your mental health

This could mean eating well, making time for physical activity, giving up smoking, getting better sleep or talking to your GP about different treatment options.

Build a support network

Find people you can rely on for practical and emotional support. Let them know when you’re starting to find things difficult and tell them what you need, whether that’s help with getting the children to school or booking a GP appointment.

Have a routine and stay organised

Sticking to regular times for mealtimes and bedtimes can help you feel more grounded and help your children feel more secure.

Write down your family routines so other people supporting your family can provide continuity and a sense of security. As well as your children’s daily and weekly routines, you could include their likes and dislikes. This can help you feel more in control if there are times you can’t be as hands-on.

Ask your employer about flexible working

Having a better work-life balance can help you manage working and parenting in a healthier way.

Seek help from your local authority

Your local authority has a duty to provide social care if your mental health means it’s hard to care for yourself or for your children. They can also support your children if they’re caring for you.

It can be hard to ask for help like this, and you may be afraid your children will be taken into care. Children are only taken into care in extreme circumstances. Remember that your local authority will have supported lots of parents before you, and will be experienced in the best ways to help you and your family. Asking for help could be a positive experience for you all.

Mind has more information on getting help from your local authority.

How can children be affected?

Many children who have a parent with a mental health problem don’t experience any negative effects. But if their parent isn’t getting enough support, some children can be affected. They might:

  • worry about their parent
  • take on a caring role
  • put their family’s needs above their own
  • have negative feelings about their parent’s mental health problem
  • find it hard to make friends or experience bullying
  • keep their worries to themselves and not feel they can share them with a trusted adult.

There are things that can protect children's mental health if they have a parent who is unwell. These include:

  • their parent acknowledging their difficulties and accepting help
  • getting support from their relatives, teachers, other adults and their friends
  • having another caregiver who does not have mental health problems
  • being parented in a consistent way
  • being supported by agencies who take a 'whole family' approach to supporting the child, their parent and other family members
  • wider community support, through a carers’ group or a faith group, for example.

Practical ways to help your children

There are practical things you can do to help your children understand your mental health problem and feel supported. Read our page on children and young people for more ideas on supporting your children.

Clear information

Children feel less anxious if they’re told the truth, so give them clear, factual, age appropriate information about your mental health problem. This can help them address any fears or misconceptions they have, and give them the language to express themselves.

Plan for times when you’re unwell

Write down what you find helpful and unhelpful when you’re unwell and share it with a trusted friend or relative. Children often carry this information in their heads which means they take on the role of carer without looking for support outside the family.

Peer support

Young carers’ groups can be an important source of support, offering children a chance to meet other young carers, talk to people who understand what they’re going through, and enjoy trips and activities. The NHS website has information on getting support and meeting other young carers.

Someone they can talk to

A trusted adult your children can speak to about your mental health, contact for support and turn to for help getting their voice heard can be vital. This could be a relative, family friend or teacher, for example.

Being prepared for hospital visits

If your child is coming to see you in an inpatient unit, it’s important that whoever brings them explains what to expect: what the building looks like, how you may look or behave, the effects of your medication, and how other services users may behave. Mental health units should have a family room where children can see their parents outside the ward.

Useful resources

Family Action and Family Rights Group both offer a range of practical and emotional support for parents.

Family Lives offers online parenting courses and advice videos, among other support for parents.

Gingerbread offers advice and support for single parents.