How To Successfully Parent With A Mental Health Condition

How To Successfully Parent With A Mental Health Condition
Having a mental health condition can make being a parent so much harder, but it can be done well. Here's some tools to help you along.

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How To Successfully Parent With A Mental Health Condition

Parenting is a challenging feat all by itself, but coupled with a personal battle with a mental health condition can make it much harder. Not only are you as a parent trying to raise your child to be a decent citizen of the world, but you’re also trying to not to have your mental health condition negatively effect your children. For many parents with mental health problems, including myself, this fine line of learning to live with mental illness and not unconsciously pass it on to your children is a painfully challenging line to walk. We want to cope and manage our illness in the best way we can, but sometimes it gets the best of us. We don’t want our children to see or experience the struggles that come with mental illness, but some days it’s just too hard to hide.

I’ve struggled with mental health issues my entire life. From major depression, anxiety disorders, postpartum depression and anxiety, to panic disorder, mental illness has become a normal struggle for me. For most of my life, I didn’t even want to have kids because I feared passing on my struggles to them. With time and a whole lot of prayer, my mind changed when I began to understand that I may not be able to fully prevent my children from experiencing similar struggles to my own, but I can certainly be the best example of handling it gracefully. I’m definitely still learning how to parent well while battling mental illness, but I have no intention of letting mental illness get the better of me, especially when it comes to my family.

Over the years, a lot of research has been done on parenting with mental health conditions and its potential effects on children. Some of it can seem very hopeless, but we can’t stop at the somewhat discouraging stats. We gotta go beyond it and see what makes parenting with mental illness successful. So how can we parent successfully with mental illness? With research and some personal experience, I’ll share with you what I know.

Research About Parenting With A Mental Health Condition

According to a 1999 survey, many healthcare facilities do not typically ask about the parenting status of those with mental health conditions [1]. Another study done in 1993 in Orange County, New York showed that 66% of parents who were receiving public mental health services reported having a child under the age of 18 [1]. Being a parent with a mental health condition is not exactly a rarity in our country, but parents still deal with stigma and bias when it comes to their mental health concerns.

How a child is parented has also been shown to be one of the most important determinents of future health [3]. Though that knowledge can be worrisome for parents with mental health conditions, it’s not a death wish. In general, much of the research done shows that an outcome of a child is mostly contingent on a parents connection with the child and a parent’s willingness to engage in personal growth [2].

Parental mental illness doesn’t always guarantee that children of parents with mental health disorder will end up with a disorder of their own. Instead, what most research has shown is that children experiencing adverse childhood experiences are much more likely to have negative effects on children than simply having a mentally ill parent. 1 in 3 children under the age of 18 will experience at least one adverse childhood experience. Though mental health problems are considered an adverse childhood experience, a parent’s mental illness will not always become a child’s mental illness as long as the parent is doing what they can to meet their child’s needs in any way they can. This page from the CDC Website has loads of information about adverse childhood experiences.

At this time, not much significant research as been done on parents with severe mental illness [2]. This shows a huge need to research potential effects on children raised with parents battling serious mental illness.

To put it in short, if a parent is mindful of their condition and willing to do what is necessary to manage it in a healthy way, then there is a great chance of children being raised well. Just because you have a mental health condition doesn’t mean you can’t be a great parent. It may mean getting more outside help from professionals and loved ones. It may also mean utilizing community resources and educational programs to better your parenting skills. But parents can parent well while living with a mental health condition.

Disclaimer

I am not a medical professional, nor do I claim to be one anywhere on The Overcoming Mom. I am simply a mom who has been through hell and back with my own stint of postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, and other mental illnesses. I’ve done a lot of research from actual medical professionals, and provided that in this article. I have credited where I have received that information within this article. If you suspect you have a mental health condition, please seek medical attention. At the end of this article I will also have resources on how you can get help.

How To Successfully Parent With A Mental Health Condition

Get Professional Help

One of the best things you can do as a parent with a mental health disorder is to get professional help if you haven’t already done so, or to keep up with your treatment if you already are. Actively seeking out and keeping up with professional help is going to be one of the best things you can do to prevent a mental illness from negatively effecting your parenting.

Most of the research about how mental health negatively impacts raising children shows that the negative impacts are most felt in families where the parent with a mental illness goes untreated. Parents who do not take care of their mental health, regardless of the degree of mental illness, are much more likely to negatively effect their children’s mental health. Getting treatment through medication, therapy, a support group, whatever it is you can access, can make or break how you raise your kids while managing mental illness.

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When you choose to get professional help, you can learn how to manage triggering episodes in a healthy way. You can find good coping mechanisms for when things get challenging.

At the end of this article, I’ll have resources for finding professional help if you are in need.

Be Honest About Your Mental Health Condition To Your Children

Often people with mental illness hide their struggle from others for fear of stigma or negative comments. For generations people kept their mental health struggles under wraps because they were worried about being “crazy” or “overly emotional,” and what happened instead is that the kids of those generations grew up dealing with the same exact issues with no guidance from their parents. Honestly, it’s no surprise that an entire generation is experiencing mental health diagnoses at a higher rate than ever. In my completely unprofessional opinion, these issues have existed for generations, but our parents and parents before kept it all a secret. If we want our children to grow up with a mindful view of mental health, we can’t keep it secret like the generations before us.

Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that we unleash the extremes of whatever we deal with onto our kids in order to be transparent with them. But instead, take the time to have a conversation with them about your mental health condition. When we are transparent with our children about our struggles, we help them understand that our mental health conditions aren’t their fault. Plus, when we are open and honest with them about our personal struggles, it gives them an opportunity to be open and honest about theirs.

We don’t want our children to feel stigmatized if they end up developing their own mental health concerns. We want them to know that their parents understand, perhaps better than anyone else. Transparency doesn’t drive our children away from us, it brings them closer.

Practice Good Social Emotional Learning In Your Home

Not only is good social emotional learning beneficial for your child’s mental health, but it’s beneficial for you too. Using different social emotional techniques in your parenting, such as gentle parenting or positive parenting, can help make the environment in your home loving, accepting, and free of shame in all kinds of ways.

From personal experience, I found when I started applying gentle parenting strategies with my child, it became a very healing experience for myself as well. In teaching my son how to handle his big feelings in accepting and mindful ways, I ended up learning how to handle them better for myself.

Establishing some good social emotional strategies can also help with creating a routine, peaceful, and consistent environment at home. Having that peaceful consistency is not only incredibly beneficial in your child’s life, but also in anyones life living with mental illness.

If you’re unfamiliar with social emotional learning for children, here’s a few resources to help you out:

  • “The Whole Brain Child” by Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson is a great resource for those totally new to the concept of gentle or peaceful parenting. It gives a great overview of the benefits it gives children, as well as why it is effective.
  • Tina Bryson also has a book called “No Drama Discipline” that is an effective tool on how to actually implement gentle parenting strategies in your home.
  • Any book by Janet Lansbury is also a great place to start. She also has a podcast, and each episode is short and sweet. Perfect for busy parents!
  • I’m a huge fan of the Our Mama Village Instagram page. There is so much easily accessible information on gentle, peaceful parenting. She also has several courses for purchase as well.

Have A Village Of Trusted People To Step In And Help When Necessary

As much as we want to be the all-powerful parents who never need a break, sometimes we do. There’s a good chance that given the right circumstances, you may feel overly stretched and stressed, and it may put more strain on your mental health condition than normal. Instead of trying to muscle through and parent as if nothing is wrong, enlist in the help of those around you to take some of the burden off of yourself. If your’re having a challenging week and need some time to recoup, don’t feel ashamed to ask family members to watch your kids, or to enlist in a babysitter or trusted friend.

Not only can enlisting in the help of other trusted caregivers be beneficial for you, but it’s good for your children too. Children greatly benefit when they have healthy relationships with other adults, not just parents. So calling Grandma or a trusted babysitter when you need a break is good for everyone involved.

Equip Yourself With Good Coping Mechanisms

We will all have bad days, regardless of a parent’s mental health. Having good coping mechanisms are an effective tool that many of us with mental health condition tend to sleep on. In fact, having an arsenal of good coping mechanisms can be one of the most vital things a parent with mental illness can have.

When choosing an effective coping mechanism, consider a few things:

  • Is it safe?
  • Is it effective?
  • Do I actually feel rested, restored, and/or content afterwords?

Not all coping mechanisms are good ones. For example, even though a glass of wine can make you feel much better at the end of the day, continuous misuse of it can be catastrophic. Even though it is nice to scroll on social media for hours, using it to avoid poor mental health doesn’t always make for a good coping mechanism. Substance use is another coping mechanism that can easily spiral into substance abuse, and lead to even more issues in the long run. So finding healthy ways to cope will always be a wise investment of your time.

Here’s just a small handful of good coping mechanisms to try out when you need it:

  • Keep a journal. Gratitude journals are a particularly effective coping mechanism.
  • Participate in a hobby that brings you joy.
  • Practice prayer, mindfulness, meditation, or simply embrace being in a quiet space.
  • Create a small “happy place” in your home that can be where you sit and relax. In our home, both my child and I have our own “quiet corners” that we sit in when we need a mental break. My son has a pillow with a little canopy and some fairy lights around it. Mine is just the couch, but either way it’s a designated quiet space for relaxing that’s all your own.
  • Have solid daily routines and stick to them. Routines are fantastic for parent’s mental health, as well as children’s mental health.

Finding a coping mechanism can be trial and error, and they’re very personal. If you’re not sure where to start, just pick one of the examples above and give it a shot. If it doesn’t help much, then just move on to another one. With time, you’ll find some that fit you well. Working with a mental health professional is also a fantastic way to find and practice more effective and healthy coping mechanisms.

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Eliminate Personal Stigma

If you are finding yourself filling your mind with personal shame and stigmatizing statements, take some time and unwrite that from your mind. Yes, having a mental illness is draining and frustrating, but shaming yourself doesn’t make it any better. Instead, educate yourself. Do some research and find a good rebuttal for those stigmatizing thoughts you may have towards yourself.

For example, I have panic disorder, and I have had plenty of self shaming thoughts towards myself about it. When I allow that personal stigma to take over, it almost always makes things worse. I end up with more panic attacks, more anxiety, and more shame. When I remind myself that having panic disorder can’t stop me from being a good person, a good mom, and a good wife, I give myself more grace in those challenging moments.

Find those self-sabotaging thoughts you may have towards yourself and your diagnosis, and find some ways to unwrite those thoughts. Write them on a list and keep somewhere close to you. When the negative feelings come flooding in, remind yourself of who you are, not how your diagnosis and/or society makes you feel about it.

Set Solid Boundaries

As parents, we feel the burden to say yes to everything our children ask, but we can lovingly say no. This goes for anyone or anything asking too much of us. Whether it’s a child, spouse, job, family member, some stranger at the store, you’re allowed to say no, and your mental health will thank you for it.

Mental health struggles happen because of chemical imbalances in the brain, but they can also happen because of situational stressors. Compromised boundaries are a massive culprit for a myriad of mental health struggles. Setting solid boundaries in an effort to protect your peace is a massive step towards parenting successfully with a mental illness.

For example:

  • If you and/or your family is overbooked, set some boundaries around the activities you choose to commit to as a family. If it’s adding to your mental load in a bad way, then don’t be afraid to say no to it.
  • Don’t be afraid to expect that other members of the household have just as much of a stake at caring for the house as you do. If you have a spouse who doesn’t consistently take care of household chores, then make it clear that it needs to change. I have a whole article about that right here.
  • If you’re working long hours and it is negatively impacting your mental health, then consider cutting back.
  • Set boundaries around your personal time. If you’re constantly being interrupted during your personal self-care time, then set the expectation clear that you need that time and it needs to be respected.

Boundaries are very personal, and should be made with your unique life in mind. These examples can help jog your brain in creating boundaries for yourself.

Mental Health resources

  • Betterhelp – Is an online therapy service that makes therapy accessible and affordable for all people. They have a huge database of therapist with many specialties, and offer many ways to participate in therapy.
  • Faithful Counseling – Is very similar to Betterhelp, but is a database of online Christian therapists. If you would prefer to receive therapy from a faith-based perspective, then this could be just for you.
  • Brightside – offers online medication and therapy treatments for depression and anxiety. You can get an appointment with an online provider in as little as 48 hours, and each treatment plan is catered to your personal needs.

Resources From The Overcoming Mom

Citations

1. Network practical tools for changing environment. Making the Invisible Visible: Parents with Psychiatric Disabilities. National Technical Assistance Center for State Mental Health Planning. Special Issue Parents with Psychiatric Disabilities. Spring, 2000.

2. Sarah L. Stewart-Brown, Anita Schrader-Mcmillan, Parenting for mental health: what does the evidence say we need to do? Report of Workpackage 2 of the DataPrev project, Health Promotion International, Volume 26, Issue suppl_1, December 2011, Pages i10–i28, https://doi.org/10.1093/heapro/dar056

3. Repetti RL, Taylor SE, Seeman TE. Risky families: family social environments and the mental and physical health of offspring. Psychol Bull. 2002 Mar;128(2):330-66. PMID: 11931522.

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Emily Maggard

Emily Maggard

Emily is the voice behind The Overcoming Mom. This music teacher turned stay at home mom has made it her mission to give moms practical and Biblical solutions for overcoming what overwhelms them. After a long battle with postpartum depression, she has learned many tips and solutions along the way to help moms through the tough realities of motherhood. She shares her life with her husband, son, and two cats.

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Don't lose your mama mind!

Get your free copy of the "I'm Triggered, Now What?" Checklist

Get a FREE copy of the “I’m Triggered! Now What?” Checklist, and get 4 simple steps to find your calm when motherhood is triggering.