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.

Tips on how to nurture kindness in your children

Tips on how to nurture kindness in your children

The holidays will soon be upon us. What is likely to make you feel better – receiving a gift, or giving one to someone in need?

Research is clear that, as the proverb goes, it’s better to give than to receive.

“Doing kind things makes you feel better,” said a sociologist at the University of Toronto Andrew Miles. “It fulfills a basic psychological need, like giving our bodies appropriate food. It helps you feel like your life is valuable.”

Miles is currently leading a large, controlled study aiming to quantify the ways in which doing good may help to counter the anxiety and depression that currently undermines the health and well-being of many people in all walks of life.

And the need for kindness may have never been greater.

The economic, educational and vocational stresses associated with the pandemic continue to take a toll.

In addition, the media, the Internet, and even neighbourhood streets are often filled with physical threats and hateful remarks directed at large segments of the population. It is important to foster a child’s emotional well-being by accepting and nurturing the child you have, not trying to forcefully create the one you want Although members of minority groups, are increasingly willing to speak out against verbal and physical attacks and discrimination, many targetted individuals continue to suffer in silence.

Little wonder that rates of anxiety and depression remain high.

Children, who can readily sense the emotional distress of their caregivers, often share the pain.

But experts said there’s an antidote that could benefit everyone.

They call it “prosocial behaviour”, or acting in ways that help other people.In her recently published book, Social Justice Parenting, an associate professor of education at Florida Atlantic University Traci Baxley emphasises the rewards of teaching compassion and kindness to a new generation.Her goal in fostering a more just world for all is to raise children “who can ultimately self-advocate, empathise with others, recognise injustice, and become proactive in changing it”.Her book, which I found hard to put down, is replete with excellent examples and advice that can help parents raise children with a healthy self-image and regard for the welfare of others.She wrote, “It is our obligation to teach our children to stand up and be allies for groups that are marginalised and silenced”.

Baxley, the mother of five, told me that upon returning to school after the pandemic lockdown, many young people experienced an increase in depression and social anxiety that can be counteracted by prosocial behaviour.“Just seeing compassion and kindness in action releases chemicals in the brain that helps them calm down,” she said. “It slows the heart rate and releases serotonin that counters symptoms of depression.”Prosocial behaviour may come naturally to some. Even […]

How are teachers using psychology in the classroom?

How are teachers using psychology in the classroom?

A child is not a statistic, roll number or a brick in the wall. Every child has a unique way to process life and learning and to impose a one-size-fits-all teaching methodology is insensitive and short-sighted. Research has repeatedly proven that every individual has a certain learning style that is informed by their upbringing, background, social and personal experiences. As educators, if we cannot address every nuance in a child’s personality, we can at least make an effort to understand the basics of educational psychology to help children learn better.

Labelling and castigating children for ‘acting out,’ ‘being difficult,’ calling them ‘emotionally unstable’ and making a bad example out of them is not unusual in schools. The damage this does to the delicate psyche of the child is inestimable. Labels like ‘slow’, ‘disruptive’ and ‘inattentive’ can scar a child forever.

Educational psychology is an attempt to approach a child with empathy as well as with knowledge about their emotional, cognitive, social and behavioural needs. The challenges that children are facing today are unprecedented. The pandemic has disrupted their education, their social life and altered their perception of the world forever. At such a time, it is even more important to make space for their anxieties, fears and possible inability to focus single-mindedly on academics.

For over two years, the lives of our children have been limited to their computer or mobile screens. Many have lost loved ones to Covid-19 and countless others have battled the infection themselves or seen their parents go through financial and emotional challenges. When they return to school, they will have to deal with the anxiety of whether classrooms and schools are pandemic proof, whether they can play just like before with their peers etc. This is why educators need to be prepared to not just educate but to create safe spaces for children to share what is on their minds. Instructional processes will have to recognise individual differences in learning and this is where educational psychology will help.

All-round development

In a nutshell, educational psychology is not just about how children are behaving or faring in academics but is focused on all-around development as they transition from childhood to adolescence. It teaches educators to understand that learning is retained in different ways and that instructional methods must address the social, emotional, and cognitive particularities of the pupils. Broadly speaking, educators can benefit from a study of developmental, behavioural and cognitive psychology.

The idea is to have an empirical perspective rather than have fixed, theory-based ideas about how to teach. Multiple perspectives about what causes certain behaviours, how conditioning impacts cognition, how emotions shape motivations for learning can all help teachers cultivate empathy and […]

Why unstructured free play is a key remedy to bullying

Why unstructured free play is a key remedy to bullying

October was National Bullying Prevention Month , and in my decade of teaching in high-poverty public elementary schools, I’ve seen strategy after strategy and initiative after initiative implemented to decrease bullying.

While every case is unique, having a general understanding of why a student chooses to bully can be helpful.

Kids usually bully for one of the following reasons: they are frustrated with life’s circumstances and don’t have the emotional tools to cope, they don’t have many friends and are lonely, they have issues with emotional regulation, or they feel powerless to control their life for any number of reasons. Our school’s approach to bullying is simple, yet effective: Unstructured free play. Seriously? Yes. Stay with me.

In the years since my school began incorporating more and more unstructured free play into our school day (before school by opening up our playground, during school by adding an additional recess, and after school by adding a Play Club), our students are happier, kinder, have fewer behavior problems, have made more friends, feel more in control of their day and their life in general, and in some cases have dramatically changed course from bullying behaviors and frequent office referrals to no bullying behaviors and no office referrals.

When we understand the root causes of bullying behavior, we can see why unstructured free play is helping our students so dramatically.

Unstructured free play addresses–head-on–making friends, learning empathy, learning emotional regulation, learning interpersonal skills, and it greatly empowers students by helping them find a healthy place in their school community–all while teaching them life’s most important skills like creativity, innovation, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, self-direction, perseverance, and social skills.

It turns out the skills our students need most can’t be learned through direct instruction from a teacher, but instead are acquired through real life experiences with their peers. When my school stopped treating students just as empty brains to fill with knowledge but instead holistic people with a huge social-emotional component to nurture, adding more time with their peers in free play was a no-brainer. So what have we seen, and how does this help fight bullying?
Let me tell you a story. A few years ago I had a student who walked around with a chip on his shoulder. He never smiled, never laughed, and always seemed angry. He was cruel to other kids, had frequent behavior issues in class, and in the course of one week had three office referrals from three different teachers for his extreme behaviors. Other kids would label him a bully, but where they saw a bully , we as teachers saw a hurting and lonely child in need of friends. He was the kind of student who was always disciplined by […]