When a parent has mental illness, how to support kids

When a parent has mental illness, how to support kids

Between the long hours, many responsibilities, and lack of control, few jobs in our society are as demanding as parenting. If a parent has a mental illness like depression or anxiety, raising kids becomes even more difficult. Many parents live in secrecy, believing that they are the only ones who struggle like they do.

But parenting with mental illness is far more common than many people suspect. In a survey of U.S. parents, more than 18 percent reported having a mental illness in the past year. While a parent’s mental illness increases child’s risk for a future mental disorder, this is by no means the only possible outcome.

“Having a parent with mental illness does not always lead to clinically significant distress in a child,” says Dr. Patricia Ibeziako, associate chief of clinical services in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Services at Boston Children’s Hospital. “It depends on many factors, including the type and severity of the parent’s mental illness, how long it lasts, and the age of the child.”

A parent’s mental illness affects children differently at different ages

Children are most vulnerable to the effects of a parent’s mental illness at specific stages of emotional development. The first stage starts early, from infancy until about age 5. “This is an important period of brain development when infants and toddlers form strong attachments,” says Dr. Ibeziako. But a parent with mental illness may not be able to meet their child’s need for bonding. An infant or toddler deprived of positive emotional connections may develop problems regulating their own emotions and behavior. This may play out in tantrums, trouble sleeping, regression in potty training, or bedwetting.

The next vulnerable period is adolescence. As difficult as their behavior may be at times, adolescents rely on their parents for structure and positive reinforcement. But a parent struggling with mental illness may be less attentive to their teenager’s needs. Or they may focus entirely on things their child is doing wrong without balancing negative feedback with praise. “A parent’s depression, irritability, or low frustration tolerance can cause teens to act out in disruptive ways,” says Dr. Ibeziako.

The lack of energy that depressed parents often experience may also affect their ability to pay attention to their child’s school routines. Without a parent’s support, school-aged children may struggle to get to school or after-school activities on time. Completing homework can become an overwhelming challenge.

A parent dealing with an anxiety disorder may be overprotective, depriving their child of the chance to learn problem-solving skills. Or a child who witnesses their parent’s anxious behavior may in turn develop fears and worries.

How to help kids develop positive coping skills

Despite these challenges, many children do find positive ways to cope. Parents can help.

What to Know About Social-Emotional Development

Many parents have heard the term “social-emotional development,” but what does it mean in the real world?

Put simply, social-emotional development refers to children’s ability to “experience, manage and express” their feelings, build relationships and actively explore their environment, according to a 2005 report from the nonprofit Zero to Three.

Managing one’s behavior, expressing emotions appropriately and developing empathy are all part of the journey.

It’s “understanding how our bodies and minds feel and think in relationship to the world around us,” says Mary Hadley, a speech-language pathologist in Texas who has spent 15 years helping adults and children communicate.

Children record many physical and mental milestones, especially in their first few years of life. Likewise, social-emotional skills grow throughout childhood and adolescence – also with milestones – and can be just as important.

Dr. Toya Roberson-Moore, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, says that social-emotional development relates to brain health, making it an element of both physical and mental health. Human development takes place simultaneously across many related areas, and it can look different for each child.

Social-emotional development changes as a child grows. A mother providing a feeling of safety for her baby begins the child’s process of healthy social-emotional development. Toddlers engage in pretend play and learn how to interact positively with others. As children enter school, they develop the ability to regulate their emotions and work well with others.

Just as children never stop learning, social-emotional development doesn’t stagnate. It builds as youngsters progress through school, allowing them to relate to others and handle challenges in healthy ways. For example:

  • Elementary school. In elementary school, social-emotional development often focuses on executive functioning skills, Hadley says, such as memory and self-control. Students engage in play-based skills, learn to advocate for themselves and practice empathy for others. When children feel safe and calm, Hadley says, parents can work on helping them recognize how their emotions feel and how to regulate themselves.
  • Middle school. Development in middle school looks similar, Hadley says. “We can teach students to be aware that the way their body and minds feel will affect their social communication,” she says. The goal is to help children understand that everyone experiences emotions, both good and bad. Yet, while middle-schoolers can verbalize their feelings, they also sometimes hide their concerns, Roberson-Moore says. They may feel ashamed of their emotions or want to avoid burdening others. This can raise additional challenges.
  • High school. “At the high school level, relationships with peer groups become very important,” says Kelly Oriard, a family therapist and co-founder of Slumberkins, a company that makes emotional learning products. As teenagers figure out where they fit in the world, it is normal and healthy for them to establish an identity outside of their family. That often means managing friendships, dating, workplace colleagues and other more complicated relationships.

When it comes to social-emotional development, parents are a primary resource for children, and experts say there are many ways to help. Here are some suggestions:

How to Help Young Children Build Resilience

How to Help Young Children Build Resilience

  • Between the global COVID-19 pandemic, the associated economic downturn, last year was difficult for everyone.
  • Decades of research have documented serious consequences from chronic stress in childhood.
  • But psychologists have identified ways in which parents teach children how to cope with adversity.
  • Here’s how to teach children resilience in the new year.

Between the global COVID-19 pandemic, the associated economic downturn, and widespread protests over racism, the last few years have been difficult for everyone. Many people are struggling, consumed with anxiety and stress, and finding themselves unable to sleep or focus.

As a developmental psychologist and researcher on anxiety and fear in infants and young children, I have been particularly concerned about the impact of the pandemic on young people’s mental health. Many have not physically been in school consistently since March of 2020. They’re isolated from friends and relatives. Some fear that they or loved ones will contract the virus; they may be hurt in racial violence or violence at home—or they might lose their home in a wildfire or flood. These are very real-life stressors.

Decades of research have documented serious consequences from chronic stress in childhood (McEwen, 2011). But psychologists have identified ways in which parents teach children how to cope with adversity—an idea commonly known as resilience.

The Effects of Childhood Stress

Children cannot be protected from everything. Parents get divorced. Children grow up in poverty. Friends or loved ones are injured, fall ill, or die. Kids can experience neglect, physical or emotional abuse, or bullying. Families immigrate, end up homeless or live through natural disasters.

There can be long-term consequences (Masten et al., 1990). Hardship in childhood can physically alter the brain architecture of a developing child. It can impair cognitive and social-emotional development, impacting learning, memory, decision-making, and more.

Some children develop emotional problems, act out with aggressive or disruptive behavior, form unhealthy relationships, or end up in trouble with the law. School performance often suffers, ultimately limiting job and income opportunities. The risk of suicide or drug and alcohol abuse can increase (Khoury et al., 2010). Kids who are exposed to chronic stress may also develop lifelong health issues, including heart attack, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and cancer.

So how do some kids thrive amidst serious challenges, while others are overwhelmed by them? Researchers in my field are working to identify what helps children overcome obstacles and flourish when the odds are stacked against them.

It seems to come down to both support and resilience. Resilience is defined as the ability to spring back, rebound, or readily recover from adversity. It’s a quality that allows people to be competent and accomplished despite tough circumstances. Some children from difficult backgrounds do well from a young age. Others bloom later, finding their paths once they reach adulthood.

Ann Masten, a pioneer in developmental psychology research, referred to resilience as “ordinary magic.” Resilient kids don’t have some kind of superpower that helps them persevere while others flounder. It isn’t a trait we’re born with; it’s something that can be fostered.

The Key Factors That Help Kids Build Resilience

The same executive function skills that create academic success seem to bestow critical coping strategies. With the capacity to focus, solve problems, and switch between tasks, children find ways to adapt and deal with obstacles in a healthy way.

Controlling behavior and emotions is also key. In a recent study, 8- to 17-year-olds who maintained emotional balance despite mistreatment were less likely to suffer from depression or other emotional problems.

However, relationships seem to be the foundation that keeps children grounded. “Attachment relationships” provide a lifelong sense of security and belonging. A parent’s or caregiver’s consistent support and protection are crucial for healthy development and the most important of these relationships. Other caring adults can help: friends, teachers, neighbors, coaches, mentors, or others. Having steadfast support lends stability and helps kids build self-esteem, self-reliance, and strength.

6 Examples of Verbal Abuse

6 Examples of Verbal Abuse

Many people experience verbal abuse in their lifetimes. Most often, abuse occurs in romantic relationships, between a parent and a child, or at work. One study has shown that in romantic relationships, 12.1% of women and 17.3% of men experience verbal abuse.1

Verbal abuse against children is highly understudied and underreported, so the prevalence rates of this type of abuse aren’t well known.2 The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 1 billion children between the ages of 2 and 17 experienced some type of abuse, verbal included.3

A report by the RAND Corporation, an American research organization, found that as many as 13.1% of men and 12.4% of women experienced verbal abuse regularly at work.4 Read on to find out more about verbal abuse, its effects, and how to spot the signs.

What Is Abuse?

“Abuse” is the term used to describe acts or behaviors that are damaging in nature. They are done to purposely cause physical or emotional harm to a person. When a person suffers from abuse, they are mistreated by someone who is looking to benefit in some way from the abusive behavior. There are many forms of abuse, including physical, sexual, verbal, and emotional.

Are All Forms of Abuse Equal?

While many people who have suffered abuse may believe that one form is less damaging than the other, all forms of abuse are wrong and can lead to detrimental consequences for the person being abused.

Verbal Abuse vs. Emotional Abuse

The terms “verbal abuse” and “emotional abuse” are often used interchangeably to describe the same type of abuse. However, even if the two are similar, there are distinct characteristics of each one.

Verbal Abuse

Speaking aggressively or violently

Emotional Abuse

Using mind games to control a victim’s behaviors, thoughts, or feelings

Verbal Abuse

Verbal abuse is a form of mental abuse that is designed to undermine a person and how they feel about themselves. Abusers also use this type of abuse to help maintain a level of control or power over the person being abused.

Verbal abuse occurs in many relationships, both personal and professional.

Getting Stuck in Negative Emotions and Relationship Patterns

  • Our current moods set up “emotional filters” that only let thoughts, memories, and emotions that are congruent with those moods through.
  • Competing (maybe positive) thoughts, memories, and emotions get filtered out by your attentional system when you are feeling down.
  • Developing emotional intelligence and learning to direct your attention and thoughts away from negative cues can let you shift your experience.

You are having a bad day. Like most days lately, you feel anxious and worried — maybe even a bit hopeless and depressed. Nothing seems to be going right. You might think, “My life just sucks.”

Now ask yourself: Why do I have to wake up tomorrow feeling the same way I did today? The truth is that you don’t.

Changing Your Negative Experience and Thoughts

The main reason for the continuation of negative experience lies in how your brain’s attention and memory systems work. But each day you wake up, you don’t have to tell yourself the same painful story.

What if you lost your memory overnight and forgot the painful experiences and tortured thoughts you were having today. Would you still feel sad and anxious? I think not. You would literally wake up with a new outlook on life — one that is fresh and clean.

At this point, you might wonder if I am suggesting staying in negative circumstances. But that is not at all the case. If you woke up in a negative environment and experienced pain, you would probably get out of there and change your environment. So, why don’t you? If you say it is not that simple, then you probably need to consider whether the problem is with the situation or with the story you are telling yourself about it.

For example: Let’s say that this afternoon I have a disagreement with my wife about how to handle a behavior problem with one of our children. I then have a difficult conversation with that child in front of my wife. The result might be that the child has a strong negative emotional experience, I feel bad and dysregulated, and my wife feels bothered that she had to witness the exchange and see her child have a negative experience.

You might know people who would bounce back from this and 30 minutes later it is like nothing happened. You also might know people for whom the negative experience lasts all day or beyond. If I or my partner are in depressive mood states, we might perceive more negative emotions in each other and respond to each other assuming disapproval or bad feelings where they need not (or may not) really exist.

Our current moods set up “emotional filters” that only let thoughts, memories, and emotions that are congruent with those moods through. Competing (maybe positive) thoughts, memories, and emotions get filtered out.

In a recent paper on happiness at Widener University, clinical psychology doctoral students David Albert, Amanda Blazkiewicz, Ariful Karim, and Ariana Swenson, uncovered the following:

Research has demonstrated that when we are socially anxious or otherwise in a negative mood state, we are more likely to perceive that others are in negative mood states even when they are actually feeling neutral or happy (Garcia & Calvo, 2014). Obviously, if we think that others are looking at us with negative expressions, we are likely to tell ourselves a negative story that will further increase our own bad feelings.

Another study by Beevers et al. (2009) showed that, when people are in more negative moods, they are likely to perceive more negative moods in others. The authors of this study suggested that partners of those who are depressive might need to regularly focus on exaggerating their positive expressions in order to compensate for this effect. Over time, this might cause undue stress on the relationship and lead to more negative feelings. So, you can see that over time being in a negative mood could actually increase the chance that you will get even more depressed and less likely that you will be able to shift your focus to positive experiences.

How to Break the Exhausting Habit of Revenge Bedtime Procrastination

How to Break the Exhausting Habit of Revenge Bedtime Procrastination

What Is Revenge Bedtime Procrastination?

Revenge bedtime procrastination is the act of deliberately putting off sleep in favor of leisure activities — binging Netflix or scrolling TikTok, for example — that provide short-term enjoyment but few long-term life benefits. Revenge bedtime procrastination is especially likely when busy schedules and daily responsibilities prevent the enjoyment of “me time” earlier in the day. (The idea is that you’re exacting “revenge” on all of life’s stressors and obligations by delaying sleep for leisure and entertainment.)

Of course, sacrificing sleep carries its fair share of consequences — namely exhaustion, poor productivity, health ramifications, and shame. In short, revenge bedtime procrastination is an unhealthy habit – and one that may be more common and troublesome for adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD).

Revenge Bedtime Procrastination: Origins, Signs, and Impact

Revenge bedtime procrastination is the approximate English translation of a Chinese expression for delaying sleep to regain freedom lost during the day. The term took off during the pandemic, as sleep problems and psychological distress collectively skyrocketed.1

Anyone can engage in revenge bedtime procrastination, but people with high-stress, busy lives and/or poor time-management skills might be more likely to put off sleep for personal time. That demographic is heavily weighted toward women, who as a group lost significant personal time during the pandemic as they took on a greater share of parenting and housework compared to men.2

Though a relatively new term, bedtime procrastination is not a new concept to researchers.3 The behavior – defined as going to bed late, absent of external reasons, and with an understanding that the delay will result in negative consequences – is conceptualized as a self-regulation problem.4 (You know what else is often described as a self-regulation problem? Yep, ADHD.)

Proper sleep is vital for functioning and overall health. That’s why inadequate sleep and poor sleep hygiene can contribute to a list of problems including:5

  • impaired cognitive functioning (memory, focus, concentration)
  • weakened immune system
  • dysregulated metabolism
  • anxiety and other mood disorders
  • increased mortality6

Revenge Bedtime Procrastination and ADHD

Why might individuals with ADHD be particularly susceptible to revenge bedtime procrastination?

Sleep Problems and ADHD

Research shows that individuals with ADHD experience problems with virtually all aspects of sleep, including:

  • difficulty falling and staying asleep7
  • daytime sleepiness3
  • Poor sleep quality and difficulty waking up8

ADHD is also associated with “increased eveningness” (preference for a later bedtime).9