Parenting with mental health difficulties

Emerging Minds, Australia, October, 2022

Resource Summary

Parenting with mental health difficulties can have its challenges. This resource was developed to help parents experiencing mental illness understand the importance of staying connected, talking to their children and maintaining routines. It recommends how to manage household chores and get support from their children’s school while providing links to further advice.

Emerging Minds acknowledges that families come in many forms. For the purposes of easy reading, the term ‘parent’ encompasses the biological, adoptive, foster and kinship carers of a child, as well as individuals who have chosen to take up primary or shared responsibility in raising that child.

Parenting with mental health difficulties

Mental health and wellbeing are not fixed. They exist on a continuum and may change over time, from states of ‘positive’ mental health or ‘going OK’ through to ‘experiencing difficulties’ or ‘needing support’ from family, trusted friends or a qualified mental health professional.

If you are a parent experiencing mental health difficulties, you are not alone. Research has found that in Australia up to one in four children are being raised by a parent living with mental illness.1 Continue reading to understand how mental illness can impact parenting and learn practical strategies to help maintain a strong relationship between you and your children.

Parenting is hard at times and takes enormous patience and understanding regardless of your health. Managing your mental health difficulties can be exhausting and overwhelming on its own, so trying to do this while being the best parent you can place extra pressure on you.

If you feel embarrassed, overwhelmed or perhaps even confused you might find it hard to share what you are experiencing. Even if you are able to talk about your experience of mental illness, it can also make you feel isolated if others don’t really ‘get’ what you are going through (even if they are trying to understand).

It’s important to know that your mental health difficulties do not make you a bad parent. Research shows that even during times of intense difficulty, people living with mental illness can parent well, and the impact on children can be minimised. With the right support from professionals, community programs and trusted family and friends2 your experiences can help develop resilience and strength in your children. To assist you in navigating parenting while experiencing mental health difficulties, consider the importance of the following.

Staying connected

As a parent living with mental illness, it’s reassuring to know there is someone you can rely on to care for your children when you are unable to. Discussions about what support family or friends are able to offer would ideally happen when one or more parents are well and present. Parents can help by making opportunities for their children to spend time with these identified trusted, adult family members or friends, who their children can talk to and build connections with. While the parent’s role in their children’s lives remains important, identifying trusted adults who can support children during difficult times is aimed at ensuring children get the support they need when your mental illness is impacting your parenting role. Read more about Building your child’s support networks when you experience mental illness.

Wherever possible, the parent living with mental health illness (or their partner if present) and the family member or friend should also discuss what they are comfortable for their children to be told about their illness. Understandably, parents may be reluctant to share too much information with their children. Our resource, Starting the conversation about your mental illness with your child provides advice on what to consider when communicating with children about their parent’s mental health difficulties.

Family or friends can prepare to talk to the children they are caring for by asking the parent about their personal experience of mental illness and doing a bit of research on the parent’s diagnosis. You’ll find some easy to read facts about mental illness on the Healthdirect website.

When you experience a mental illness, it takes you away from the time you want to spend with your family because you are just trying to get through each day.

– Nikko, father, South Australia

Talking to children

When you are parenting with a mental illness you may find there are times when you are less able to parent the way you’d like to. Many parents feel impatient and have less energy for participating in activities with their children. You might feel more irritable and quicker to anger. It can be very hard to enjoy playing games or running around with the children, even if you have previously enjoyed these things.

During these times it is important to go easy on yourself. Make a plan to continue with small things that help keep you connected with your child, while also keeping your own limitations in mind. For example, giving cuddles, leaving little messages on your children’s pillows, sitting on the couch and watching television together, or just being there to watch them play can make a big difference. You’ll find some more ways to maintain connections with your children in Staying connected when living with mental illness: a guide for parents.

Managing household responsibilities

Household responsibilities can also be a source of tension when you are experiencing mental health difficulties. Children may step in to help and normal roles and obligations might change. It is useful to take time to think about how these roles differ and what extra responsibilities children have or can take on to help support you and the family. If well managed, having extra responsibilities can become a source of pride, as children can feel their help has supported your recovery. However, if jobs allocated are left unchecked, or are not age appropriate, they can become draining and cause children to miss out on some of their normal activities. Learn more about managing household chores to benefit the whole family.

Maintaining routines

Family life can be chaotic at the best of times, and when you are experiencing mental health difficulties maintaining routines adds extra pressure on families. Keeping to normal daily routines such as regular meal times and getting the kids to their play dates can become more difficult. Such daily tasks can be even more challenging if the symptoms of your mental illness and/or your treatment result in you not feeling your best self.

The stability that is created by routines helps children feel safe and secure. So putting in place some strategies to keep things as consistent as possible can help the whole family to navigate through difficult times. Even being consistent with small things such as reading a bedtime story or tucking children in at night can make all the difference. You might need to ask for help from family or friends with the bigger daily tasks of running the house and this is OK. Learn more about maintaining routines to help children feel safe and secure.

The stability created by routines helps children feel safe and secure. So putting in place some strategies to keep things consistent when you are feeling unwell can help the whole family to navigate through this time.

Talking with your child’s school or early learning service

School and early learning services provide structure, routine and connection for children, as well as a valuable external support when things are difficult. By making your child’s teacher or educators aware of any difficulties at home they will be better able to respond to your child’s needs, while being a trusted source of support and information. Schools and early learning services may also be able to help with:

  • short-term fee assistance if you are unable to work due to mental health difficulties
  • homework and assignment support for your child; or
  • subsidised out-of-hours care.

It is recommended you talk to your child’s school or early learning service about how they can help.

Recovery and parenting

Recovery from mental health difficulties is different for everyone. For some it means living symptom free, while for others it involves living your best life and managing the symptoms of mental illness.

As a parent who is working towards recovery, family life can be both tiring and frustrating as well as a source of joy, hope and motivation. Recovery may involve reflecting on:

  • some of the challenges your family has faced as a result of your experience of mental illness; and
  • how you can navigate the path of your recovery together for the benefit of the whole family.

It’s important to remember that your recovery journey can be a positive one for you and your family: it can help your children develop resilience and compassion while also reducing the stigma of mental illness for their generation.

Within this process it can also be helpful for you to think about what is important for your own recovery, what this means for your family and what role parenting plays. You may find some additional ideas in Parenting and recovery from mental illness.

Being a parent is demanding at the best of times, and even more so if you experience mental health difficulties. With practical strategies and professional support you and your family can grow and learn from these experiences, while building the resilience and strength to face future challenges.


1. Maybery, D., Reupert, A., Patrick, K., Goodyear, M., & Crase, L. (2009). Prevalence of parental mental illness in Australian families. Psychiatric Bulletin, 33(1), 22–26.
2. Reupert, A. E., Maybery, D. J., & Kowalenko, N. M. (2013). Children whose parents have a mental illness: Prevalence, need and treatment. The Medical Journal of Australia, 199(3), 7–9

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