Transcript for
Growing up with a parent who experiences mental health difficulties

Runtime 00:20:08
Released 8/5/23

Narrator (00:02):

Welcome to the Emerging Minds Families Podcast.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (00:05):

Hi, I’m Alicia Ranford and you’re listening to an Emerging Minds Families podcast.


Being a child is a unique and important stage of life where we learn and grow. It’s a time when we explore the world around us, discover our interests and form important relationships with family and friends. Our childhood experiences often shape who we are and how we view the world.


When you grow up with a parent who experiences mental health difficulties, there can be some challenges. But it can also help children to develop a greater sense of empathy and understanding, as well as create strong bonds between families as they work to navigate the ups and downs.


Today, we are talking to Abbey Clark. She’s 18 years of age and is generously sharing her experiences of growing up with a father who experiences mental health difficulties.


Welcome, Abbey. It’s so wonderful of you to be here with us today.

Abbey Clark (Guest) (00:57):

G’day. It’s lovely to be here.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (00:59):

Abbey, could you tell me a little bit about your family?

Abbey Clark (Guest) (01:02):

Yeah. Our family is a family of five. I’ve got Dad, Mum, I’ve got two older brothers and then there’s myself.


Our parents have since separated quite recently, and my brothers, they’ve moved out of home now, I’ve moved out of home. So we’re still a family, but we’re off kind of in our own little pathways.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (01:20):

Abbey, what do you remember in those early years when your dad was unwell?

Abbey Clark (Guest) (01:24):

I sort of remember feeling a lot of fear. I suppose his illness was more so characterised by anger, hostility, and also avoidance. Obviously, a lot of that avoidance I didn’t quite see. It’s a little bit harder to see than the outrage and the anger, that’s a little bit less subtle, so I saw a lot of that anger.


Looking back I can see that Mum, she was trying to shield us to the best of her ability and, in a way, I do thank that, but there is a time where you just can’t shield anymore. And shielding probably does more damage than being open about it, but there was some things that she just couldn’t shield.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (01:58):

And what age were you when he was experiencing these mental health difficulties?

Abbey Clark (Guest) (02:03):

I was four or five when it sort of came to life, his mental illness. Recovery is quite long, of course, so I was exposed to this ill behaviour all up until sort of like the age of 10.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (02:14):

If you think back, when did you first remember learning that your dad was having difficulties?

Abbey Clark (Guest) (02:20):

He didn’t tell us straightaway, so I wasn’t quite as young as when it started. He took a moment to tell us. He kind of stabilised himself first so I was probably around six-ish at the time.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (02:30):

And what do you remember? Did Mum and Dad sit you down and explain to you in some way what was happening in the house?

Abbey Clark (Guest) (02:37):

Yeah. We all had a little family meeting on their bedroom bed. We all sat down on the bed and he just opened up about it. Mum was there and she was chiming in every now and again and we just kind of sat. It was a bit of a quiet conversation. We didn’t really have a whole lot to say.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (02:51):

So did you feel like you understood what Mum and Dad were saying to you?

Abbey Clark (Guest) (02:55):

I actually didn’t, really. I kind of understood what they were trying to convey, but I didn’t really see the significance in the conversation because I just couldn’t quite comprehend what they were telling me.


So it’s kind of like if a stranger just stops you in the street and says, “Hey, I’m sick, but I’m getting some treatment.” You’re kind of like, “Oh, okay. That’s good for you. Sorry to hear. I’ve got to go now.” The only question about the conversation was, “What’s for dinner?”

Alicia Ranford (Host) (03:18):

Do you remember how you felt after Mum and Dad had sat you down on their bed and explained to you that Dad was unwell?

Abbey Clark (Guest) (03:27):

I sort of felt a little bit of sympathy, I think. You just hear that someone’s unwell and you just have that sort of response, “Oh, that’s bad. Being unwell is bad. I hope he gets better soon.”


We were less so concerned about the implications that that would have on our family because we didn’t really have a whole lot of association between being ill in the head and any other consequences from that. So I wasn’t really fearful of anything that would happen as a result of that, as a result of his illness.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (03:56):

And did you feel like because Mum and Dad said it was going to be okay, it was going to be okay?

Abbey Clark (Guest) (04:00):

Yeah, I did. I had a lot of trust in what they told me because if Mum and Dad say it’s going to be okay, then surely it must be okay, right?

Alicia Ranford (Host) (04:07):

What changes did you notice in the house as Dad worked to support himself and his mental health?

Abbey Clark (Guest) (04:13):

Before we’d kind of become aware of this issue as kids, he had already resigned from his work and he took some time off work to be a stay-at-home father. Then he sort of picked up little gigs on the side us, so doing like tomato picking, helping out on people’s farms, stuff like that. He wasn’t working a whole lot and he spent a lot of time in the home and we definitely noticed that because we are home a lot of the time as well.


So, in a way, we were exposed to a lot of different things. We were still exposed to his symptoms, but we were also exposed to him learning and we were exposed to the techniques that he applied. He was really big on finding hobbies and exploring hobbies as a way to cope with mental illness so we went fishing, we went camping, we went hiking. We were just doing all these little activities and he would just drag us along and we would have the time of our lives, essentially.


And I just remember, like I look back on that time as being very golden. It just felt like a long summer and, in a way, I’m quite grateful that we were able to pull that off.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (05:09):

And you said to me when we talked before that you felt like you became a more effective family. Can you describe that to me?

Abbey Clark (Guest) (05:18):

Yeah. We became a more effective family because we became more vulnerable and we accepted the honest truth. We talked about the honest truth and together, as a family, we counted that honest truth. We learned as a family, we were transparent, we grew, we tried challenges.


He passed down the knowledge that he learned to us and we were able to implement those strategies of effective communication, emotional regulation and all of that and that really helped us to be a better family and to cooperate better.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (05:49):

You said to me also that there was a shift in your family and you shifted to being a more open and honest family.

Abbey Clark (Guest) (05:55):

Yeah. Before the conversation and before opening up to this issue that we were facing, we felt like quite a desolate family. It just felt quite isolated and quite dull. Everything was like whispers and everything was hush-hush and just like these artificial moments of happiness and these artificial moments of security that Mum had constructed for us. That’s just not sustainable and, eventually, we would’ve grown out of that. And everything was just black and white.


So when we opened up about this, we became honest, we became transparent, we were able to face our world properly. That just brought a whole lot of colour into our lives and I’m so thankful that we had this revelation.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (06:35):

I really love how you say, “We had this revelation, we did this,” so it sounds like you really managed things as a family. It wasn’t about Dad’s mental illness. It was about, “As a family, how can we work together to make our family’s lives more happy and more open and honest?”

Abbey Clark (Guest) (06:58):

We definitely treated it as a family issue and as a family collective struggle. I think that is so important because, at the end of the day, you need the family to solve the issue so you have to, as a family, address the issue.


We still acknowledge that this was something related to Dad, that the solutions, we approached them through our relationships with him, through our treatment around him, our behaviour around him. It’s a progress that we partake in as a family.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (07:23):

That’s absolutely beautiful. And one of the things that you’ve said to me previously was, “We all recovered.” So it wasn’t just about Dad’s recovery. It was about your recovery as a family.

Abbey Clark (Guest) (07:34):

Yeah, exactly. I suppose it’s like a pendulum and you grab the ball and you swing it back. When you let go of that ball, it doesn’t just arrive back to the place that it started. It actually swings further than that.


So we healed as a family and we grew strong as a family and we were able to learn all these things about mental illness and about recovery that we implement constantly in our lives today.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (07:57):

I know from conversations before that you said you became a more active family. What was some of the ways that activity helped you and your brothers and sisters and your mom and dad heal?

Abbey Clark (Guest) (08:11):

As a lot of people know now that being active and doing things is really, really good for the brain so activity is really important. That emphasis in its own is already so important and so productive for us.


Another thing was that in doing these activities, we come together as a family more because a lot of these activities are family-based, even soccer. Like Mum and Dad are coming along to our soccer games and we’re spending more time as a family.


And I think the emphasis on activity, it keeps our mind off of things at home. It gets us in a better mood. We learn skills that you practice in the activity. So it was just really beneficial for us.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (08:47):

Looking back, how do you feel about going through this period with your family?

Abbey Clark (Guest) (08:52):

This period was very, very difficult and I won’t truly be able to comprehend the effects that illness has had on me. I suffer mood disorders and mental instability and I don’t know if that’s just regular genetics or if that’s because of what we were exposed to.


Because when you’re a emotionally dysregulated parent, it can affect your kids and it can affect their brains in ways that you can’t fully comprehend. And I still feel the fear. Sometimes Dad grows out his beard a little bit and it still brings me back to the time where he had a beard and the time where he would yell at us. So it’s still quite emotional and it still has its carry-on effect.


However, I’m so thankful for what we learned because I know so much about mental illness and I’ve practiced that myself. I’ve practiced that in my own recovery. I’ve helped friends with it. I’ve referred friends to psychologists and to Kids Helpline, and I’ve given them action plans.


All of this I learned through my dad and all of that he learned through his own experience. And without that, I don’t know where I would be today. I really don’t so I’m so grateful for what we learned through that experience.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (09:58):

Abbey, now you understand that Dad was experiencing mental health difficulties and was trying to support not only himself, but the family during his recovery process, do you have any reflections as his daughter on that time in his life?

Abbey Clark (Guest) (10:13):

Being able to admit that you’re in a difficult position is something that everyone has to do in their life and you can’t just keep putting it off. You can’t keep being in denial and you can’t keep just trying harder, trying to work yourself out of this problem. He’s stressed because of work so the answer is to work harder. Surely just work harder, work harder, and it’ll all be fine.


But oftentimes it’s not about trying harder, it’s about trying something different and it takes a lot of strength. It takes problem-solving, it takes resilience, it takes honesty and for you to be a model of that to your children, it’s priceless. Now I know that it’s okay to seek help. I know that it’s okay to be ill and to recognise that and I know how important it is to try to get out of that.


And through all of this, I respect and I admire my dad for getting help. A lot of the recovery process was trial and error. He tried a bunch of different things and a bunch of different things didn’t work, but a bunch of different things did. So not only through his trial and error is he able to pass on really refined effective solutions and practices, but he’s also able to teach us how to implement trial and error in our own lives.


So I look back on what he’s learned and what I’ve learned and what he’s modelled to me. So things like, I remember he would come into my room and he would insist that I do these breathing exercises. I’d just be so bored of it and I’d say, “It doesn’t work. It doesn’t work.” But he’d teach me to have a good hard crack at it and to this day, I don’t really like breathing exercises, but I was able to find things that did.


One of the practices that he told me about was how he just couldn’t face things sometimes and he was so avoidant. It just seemed like such a big task and he would dread it. He told me that he would break it down into steps, smaller steps that he could face, going to the Men’s Shed. It was really important to him to get out to see people to do something. But sometimes it was just unbearable to face. So he would just say, “I just have to get my car keys. I just have to walk out the door. I’ll just sit in the car for a little bit. I’ll just start the engine. I’ll just drive there and I’ll just park outside.”


To this day, I hear that and that becomes like my inner voice and I start talking to myself like that. “Abbey, I’ll just open up the Google Doc. Abbey, I’ll just start typing a couple words. Abbey, I’ll just spend 10 minutes doing my assignment” and it makes things more bearable. So that’s another skill that I’ve practiced as a result of what he’s learned.


There’s so many more skills that I’ve learned from him and that I’ve learned through my own searching and that I’ve been reassured by his trial and error. In seeking my own therapists, I was getting frustrated that I wasn’t finding the right one. He said to me that he had one that he saw and it just wasn’t right and he stuck it out and it just wasn’t right. That gave me hope that I can eventually find someone that is right for me, just like he did. So that trial and error is so important and I’m so grateful for that.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (13:01):

What incredible skills for you to use in your life as you navigate the ups and downs that inevitably come in all of our lives. It’s really remarkable.

Abbey Clark (Guest) (13:10):

It’s good. I’m so glad for it.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (13:12):

What would you say to any parents listening today who are perhaps experiencing difficulties themselves and are not sure about how to tell their kids?

Abbey Clark (Guest) (13:21):

I would tell them to be appropriately honest. Sure, if you need to stabilise yourself, if you want to work out a little bit more about mental illness and if you want to do a little bit of mobility and just stabilise yourself just for a little bit, that’s okay. You can take a little bit of time, put yourself together before you tell your kids. You don’t have to open up all at once.


You can also break it up into little conversations. You don’t have to say it all in one go. You can get a large chunk of the way out and just sort of solidify it gradually.


You don’t have to go into the absolute disgusting and dark and confronting parts. They don’t necessarily need to hear that.


But it is important that you use appropriate terminology. If you think about it like a baby, you talk to the baby and you say, “This is a banana. Do you want a banana? What is this? What colour is this?”


And you talk them through your world because, eventually, they’re going to have to have their own world that they have to face and that they have to navigate. So describe your world to them. Make sense of your world to them, and they’ll be able to make sense of their own.


So use the right terminology. Say that you are ill, say that you’re seeking help, that you’re using treatment, that you’re using medication. Familiarise them with the appropriate terminology and they’ll be able to apply that in their own lives.


And I just encourage you to be honest, because I admire my dad and I’m thankful for my dad and I would encourage you to privilege your kids to be able to say the same.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (14:44):

I need to keep reminding myself that you are 18 years of age. You’re absolutely remarkable, Abbey. It’s amazing.

Abbey Clark (Guest) (14:52):

Thank you.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (14:53):

And what would you say to kids whose parents have shared with them that they have mental health difficulties? Do you have any advice for them from your own experiences?

Abbey Clark (Guest) (15:03):

My advice is it will be tricky and we shouldn’t really sugarcoat things. It will be difficult. Healing is difficult and it can be scary and it can be challenging. So it’s okay if you feel scared and it’s okay that you feel challenged. That is so normal.


But just have trust that the emotions that you feel now will not feel as big as it is now forever. The situation that you’re in will not be as big in the future. Things will change. What you feel right now will not be what you feel forever. That’s what I’d like to tell kids who are in the same boat.


Take care of yourself as well. You can’t always support your parents for everything, and it’s not necessarily your responsibility to help them heal. So look out for yourself as well. Don’t assume full responsibility and full burden for their issues. Take time for yourself. Do the things that make you happy and do the things that make you well.


But just have trust in that. Progress is not linear. There will be so-called setbacks, but setbacks is still moving forward and setbacks are still progression and growth. So just have trust in it.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (16:05):

Abbey, a lot of families tell us that the stigma around mental health difficulties is hard. Did you feel this when Dad was unwell?

Abbey Clark (Guest) (16:13):

I suppose another thing to understand with the stigma that you are exposed to with mental illness is that your kids aren’t necessarily exposed to the same thing.


When I was growing up, I had no sense of any stigma to mental illness. Kids don’t tend to stigmatise things and especially when they’re really young, they just don’t have any sense of anything else.


So you make your own reference point, you make your own definitions, you make your own reality about mental illness. Mental illness doesn’t have to be this scary and shameful thing if you convey to your kids otherwise. You have license in your healing and you have license in the way you explain things and the way that you define things.


Kids are really malleable so I wasn’t exposed to any ideas that mental illness made you weak or that there was something wrong with you and that it could never be fixed. We made our own reality for mental illness.


Essentially, what I’m trying to say is that you don’t have to worry about your kids judging you because there’s a good chance that they haven’t been exposed to these judgements and that if they have, there’s a good chance that you can change those.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (17:15):

What I’m hearing you say is that you still loved your dad just as much, even though he was experiencing these difficulties.

Abbey Clark (Guest) (17:22):

Absolutely. Absolutely, I did. He did not change in my perception to the negative at all and, in hindsight, he changed so much for the positive. There’s something so admirable about seeking help and about being honest. So there was no judgement , there was no criticism for him opening up about that. Absolutely none.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (17:41):

And, Abbey, you’ve talked about your family life when you were young and Dad was having difficulties. How would you describe your family now?

Abbey Clark (Guest) (17:50):

I suppose my family now, it looks like healthy communication. That’s something I’m so proud about is the way that we are able to talk and be open about our emotions. We are able to ask for things that we need. We’re able to say, “I’m sorry, but I am not in the emotional state to have this conversation with you right now.” We’re able to say, “I’m sorry, but I’m just going to need more time.” We’re able to communicate our requests. We’re able to discuss things that we’re facing.


We’re just a lot more honest and, in being more honest, we can be more effective, we can be better children, we can be better parents, we can be better siblings to each other. For that, I’m so thankful.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (18:26):

If our listeners today remember nothing else, what would be the key thing you want them to remember from hearing your story?

Abbey Clark (Guest) (18:34):

The key thing I would want them to remember is to be honest. You will never be able to tackle a problem that you haven’t first truly opened up to. You can’t solve a problem that you haven’t properly addressed.


So don’t shelter your kids from the truth. Don’t hide them. Don’t tell them it’s all going to be okay and that nothing’s wrong, if that’s not entirely true. So address the problem and then you can tackle it as a family.


And just have trust that you will end up in a better spot. Have trust in that the process is not linear, but that progress is progress and it doesn’t all look positive.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (19:06):

You are such a remarkable young person and I really want to thank you for spending time with us today.

Abbey Clark (Guest) (19:12):

Thank you so much. No, it’s been an absolute pleasure and I really enjoyed being able to do this and being able to talk about this. Because I do think it’s a really important topic and I’m hoping that some people can just learn even just a tiny little bit from this.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (19:23):

I think there is absolutely no doubt that anyone listening today will have learned so much from hearing your story. Thank you, Abbey.

Abbey Clark (Guest) (19:31):

Thank you.

Narrator (19:35):

Visit our website at for a wide range of free information and resources to help support child and family mental health.


Emerging Minds leads the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health. The centre is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health under the National Support for Child and Youth Mental Health Program.

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