Parental Mental Health Impacts on Children

Parents and caregivers of young children play a critical role in a child’s brain development. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), parenting behavior has a significant influence on children’s mental health and may contribute to the development of emotional or behavior problems in children. 

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 20% of U.S. adults and 17% of children ages 6 to 17 are experiencing mental illness or a mental health disorder. Most prevalent among both parents and children today are anxiety disorders (19%) and depression (7%), followed by post-traumatic stress disorder (4%).

The CDC states that in a recent study, one in 14 children aged 0–17 years had a parent who reported poor mental health, and those children were more likely to have poor general health; to have a mental, emotional, or developmental disability; to have adverse childhood experiences such as exposure to violence or family disruptions; and to be living in poverty.

According to Mental Health America, some mental health conditions have a genetic link. However, factors like a child’s genetic vulnerability, the parent’s behavior, the child’s understanding of the parent’s illness, and the degree of family stability could also play a role in whether or not the children of parents with mental illness will develop social, emotional, or behavioral problems. 

Talking About Mental Illness with Children

Talking to children about mental illness can be an opportunity for parents to provide their children with information, support, and guidance. When talking with children about mental illness, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry suggests:  

  • communicating in a straightforward manner
  • communicating at a level that is appropriate to a child’s age and development level
    • Preschool-age children don’t need details, and the focus should be on what they can see (sadness, anger, etc.). 
    • School-age children might require more details and they might have questions. In that case, it’s important for parents and caregivers to answer questions honestly and reassure them about their feelings.
    • Teenagers can handle details, and they might ask specific questions. They respond better to open dialogue versus lectures.
  • having the discussion when the child feels safe and comfortable
  • watching their child’s reaction during the discussion
  • slowing down or backing up if the child becomes confused or looks upset

Positive Parenting Tips

In addition to being open and honest with children, other parental interventions can prevent negative outcomes for future generations. Parents and caregivers can do the following to decrease the risk of mental illness to children:

  • Ensuring that the child is loved
  • Assuring the child that they are not to blame 
  • Enlisting help and support from family members
  • Creating a stable home environment
  • Participating in psychotherapy as a family
  • Promoting inner strength and good coping skills in the child
  • Enlisting help from outside the family to improve the family environment 
  • Encouraging a strong relationship with a healthy adult, friendships, and healthy interests outside the home for the child

Books to Help Discuss a Parent or Caregiver’s Mental Disorder

Books can help guide the conversation about a family member’s mental illness. Here are some suggestions:

Managing Mental Illness and Parenting

The typical stresses of parenthood can be extra challenging on top of a mental illness. It’s important to practice self care, as it promotes good physical and mental health.  Work on proper eating habits, getting enough exercise and rest, practicing relaxation techniques, and accepting help from family and friends when things feel difficult. 

To find support or more information on living with a mental health condition, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website.

Series Navigation

The Developmentally Appropriate Parenting Series highlights several early childhood topics to support parents and caregivers who are caring for young children. Use the list below to navigate through each series topic:

Learn more about the series.

Request free printed materials from our Developmentally Appropriate Parenting Series.


Picture: A young baby looks up at the camera.
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