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Parenting with a mental health problem

Explains difficulties you may face as a parent with a mental health problem, support available and suggestions on how to help yourself and your children.

This section is for friends and family who want to support someone who is parenting with a mental health problem. Support from friends and family is very helpful when looking after children. This is particularly true if someone is unwell.

If you're concerned for a child's safety

Sometimes complex problems like mental distress or disorientation can make it hard for parents to meet a child's needs.

In some instances, this situation can develop into a more serious one of neglect or abuse. If you notice any warning signs, it is important that you take them seriously – even though it can feel very hard to do so.

  • If you have a strong enough relationship with the parent, see if you can find a way to voice your concerns without judging their parenting.
  • Ask them if you can help them to find the support that is needed.
  • If you are unsure about what to do in this situation, you might find it helpful to contact the NSPCC to find out your options and discuss your concerns in confidence.
  • If you are genuinely worried about a child's safety, you may want to talk to your local authority's Children's Services department.
  • It is likely that you will be worried about whether you are doing the right thing, and you may feel as if you are betraying your friend or family member. It is important that you also find support for yourself during this time.

Practical help

Practical help is invaluable when someone is unwell. There can be any number of things that you could do to support someone that would make a huge difference to their stress and anxiety levels:

  • helping with day-to-day tasks like transport, childcare, housework or shopping
  • organising parenting responsibilities over a period of time by working out daily and weekly routines and identifying the most important tasks
  • taking the children to activities and making sure they still get to see their friends
  • looking after pets
  • acting as an emergency contact person who can have the children to stay at short notice, or help with basic tasks, if your friend or family member becomes unwell
  • asking your friend or family member how you can best help – they will know what's most helpful for them.

If your friend or relative is more seriously ill, you may have to decide whether to do things for them (possibly including looking after the children for a bit) or to keep encouraging them to try to carry on for themselves. There are no easy answers to this situation.

It will help if you can find someone who you can discuss these and other issues with, and who may be able to share the responsibility with you.

Emotional support

If your friend or family member is finding it hard to look after their family, they may worry that they will be judged or criticised if they ask for help, so it's important to be supportive and reassure them that it's ok to seek support.

Encourage them to be open about their mental health problem, so they feel comfortable coming to you if they need support.

Things you could consider or try include:

  • letting them know that you respect them for talking to you about how they are feeling
  • being empathic and understanding in your response, rather than trying to 'fix' them
  • exploring with them any ways that would help them to recognise when they are becoming unwell, and what their triggers are
  • if you sense that they are not coping, asking them how they are – they may not know how to ask for help
  • understanding that they may feel very sensitive to being judged and being as supportive and kind as you can in the way you speak with them.

"I didn't realise becoming a parent was going to be hard but having depression and looking after a baby made me feel blank. All I can say is thank God for family and positivity."

Helping them find other support

It is important that you don't offer more support than you can genuinely give. If you feel that your friend or family member needs additional support, you could help them find the extra support they need by:

  • researching what support is available for them, or doing it together
  • putting together a list of contact numbers and opening times for local support services
  • signposting them to useful websites and information services
  • acting as an advocate to help them get the support they need, including contacting schools, other friends or family members on their behalf to enlist support (if you have previously agreed that they are happy for you to do this).

Looking after yourself

It can sometimes be really challenging to support someone with a mental health problem - you are not alone if you feel overwhelmed at times.

It is important to remember to look after your own mental health too, so you have the energy, time and distance that is necessary to be able to help. Be clear about what you can and can't do, and how much time you have available.

For example:

  • Set boundaries and don't take too much on. If you become unwell yourself you won't be able to offer as much support. It is also important to decide what your limits are and how much you feel able to help.
  • Share your caring role with others, if you can. It's often easier to support others if you're not doing it alone. See our information on how to cope when supporting someone else for suggestions.
  • Talk to others about how you're feeling. You may want to be careful about how much information you share about the person you're supporting, but talking about your own feelings with someone you trust can help you to feel supported too.
  • Find support for yourself. The organisations listed on our useful contacts page are there to support you too. It could also help to explore peer support and talking therapies.

"Those who love me for who I am as me – rather than my diagnosis – and who are not afraid to stand up to stigma, are those I love and want around me."

This information was published in April 2019. We will revise it in 2022.

References and bibliography available on request.

If you want to reproduce this content, see our permissions and licensing page.

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