Staying connected to your children when living with mental illness

Emerging Minds, Australia, October, 2022

Resource Summary

This resource was developed as a guide for parents living with mental illness who have to spend some time away from their children (such as being in hospital) as part of their treatment and recovery. It outlines why remaining connected is important for children’s resilience and some of the simple ways parents can connect with their children while experiencing mental illness.


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.

Keeping connected when you’re unwell (or in hospital)  

When you are experiencing mental health difficulties it can take all your energy just getting through the day – and anything more than the bare minimum of looking after yourself – including spending time with others – might feel unachievable.   

During these times it’s important as a parent that you find ways to maintain a sense of closeness and connection with your children to support both their, and your own, wellbeing. This resource aims to:

  • help you understand why staying connected to your children when living with mental illness is important; and   
  • provide some practical strategies you can use to help maintain strong family connections when unwell or away from home due to illness.  

‘Some days I was so unwell that it was hard to undertake any activity… the bare minimum would be eating and going to the bathroom. It’s so difficult to even see this as a win, but it takes time to get the recovery plan right… and it is an achievement, and one that should be acknowledged.’ 

Jaisen, father of four, Tasmania

Children thrive when they have strong connections with parents and/or caregivers. Strong, positive relationships with parents and/or caregivers help children to feel safe and secure, which supports their learning, development and exploration of the world around them.1 When you’re feeling unwell it can be hard to parent and your child’s needs may sometimes feel overwhelming. There can be a mismatch between what you need – such as rest and time to yourself – and what your child needs: connection, closeness and attention. At these times your child may seem more demanding and appear clingy, or they may demonstrate challenging behaviours, which could result in you feeling more angry or irritated than usual.   

When your children feel connected to you, it can help them feel more resilient during difficult times. The good news is: it isn’t just the big gestures or activities that keep children feeling connected with you – small things such as a cuddle, leaving little messages in their bedroom, sitting on the couch and watching TV together, or just being there to watch them play are meaningful for your child. 

‘When I was unwell, the children would sit on the bed with me and we’d watch TV or read books… these moments are cherished because I was at such a low point – but they were learning about how we can be resilient in times of personal hardship.’ 

Jaisen, father of four, Tasmania

Symptoms of mental illness such as hallucinations or delusions can be very confusing and/or frightening for children. If you are experiencing such symptoms it may be beneficial for partners, family or trusted friends to facilitate connection between you and your child, while you seek treatment and your symptoms decrease or resolve. In these circumstances, maintaining connection might mean giving your child a nice photo of the two of you in a frame, and if possible, identifying and encouraging times for connection when it is appropriate and safe to do so.

‘It’s very important to keep those connections going… little things and age appropriate explanations go a long way in helping children build an understanding.’ 

Jaisen, father of four, Tasmania

It’s important to build your and your children’s support networks so you both have trusted adult family members and friends that you can rely on for help when you are unwell. By creating opportunities for your children to spend time with these people, you are supporting your children’s resilience during difficult times by giving them the gift of connection with others. We provide advice for both parents experiencing mental illness and family and friends on providing support when you are unwell, and guidance on building your support networks.   

Ways to connect with your children

The following suggestions have been made by parents with lived experience of mental illness, and who, like you, are working hard to stay connected with their children even when things are difficult.   

  • Be there with your child. You don’t need to entertain or lead your child in play. Simply being there, watching them and inviting them to talk to you about what they are doing is a good way to connect.  
  • Invite your child to tell you what they would like to do – you might be surprised to learn that simple things are what they enjoy most. Children like quiet times too.  
  • If you have toddlers and don’t have the energy to actively play, you can sit down near them and watch them play. You can connect by describing what they are doing and inviting them to talk about what they are doing.  
  • If you aren’t able to go with your child on an outing, tell them you would love to hear all about it when they get back. You could also invite them to share something they found or photos they took while they were out.  
  • If you aren’t able to be present for your child (for example, in the morning or when they get home from school) leaving a special message for them in a lunchbox or somewhere at home they enjoy spending time (for example, a cubby house) can mean a lot.  
  • Invite your child to read you a story while you are together. 

‘Mine used to like to nap with me. It was nice to have them there, just sleeping… I felt loved and cared for and this made a huge impact on my recovery.’ 

Jaisen, father of four, Tasmania

Whether you are feeling well or unwell, try to prioritise some one-on-one time with your child every day. If you really feel like you can’t be with your child, you could help them understand by saying something like:

I would like to spend time with you, but I am feeling unwell at the moment so I need to spend some time on my own and get some rest. After I’ve rested we can spend some time together.

Speaking to your GP or mental health specialist can help if you’re struggling to connect with your child. They will be able to provide support and further resources should you need them.

‘We have quiet time which is good. Sometimes it’s a snuggle day so we’ll get a blanket out, some pillows and we’ll go snuggle on the couch and watch TV or watch a favourite movie or something that they want to do. Sometimes we play board games together. They’re basic ways to keep that connection with them.’ 

Jason, father, Victoria

Staying connected when you’re in hospital or away from home

If you’re unwell and need to spend some time in hospital or away from home, it is still important to find ways to stay connected with your child. Although being physically away from your child makes things more challenging, modern technology has made it much easier to make small gestures (refer to the following list for some examples). If you are felling unsure of how best to stay connected with those at home, talk with members of your mental health team about options that might work best for you while you’re getting better.  

The following are ideas from those with lived experience who have spent time away from family and friends during recovery:  

  • Sending a message. Ask staff where you’re staying to send a message to your child or send a text, voice or video message from your mobile phone.  
  • Send a letter or email, or ask staff to help you write one.  
  • Arrange for a phone call.  
  • Plan a visit with your child, for a time that suits you best. Where you’re staying there may be a family room where you can spend time with your child away from other people.  
  • Arrange for leave from hospital to join in on a family activity or just to spend quiet time at home with your child and family.  
  • If you are from a country town and staying in the city, ask if there are video conferencing services that you could use to talk with your child.  
  • Play a two-player online game with your children, for example Words with Friends, Battleships or Ultimate Tic Tac Toe.   

Remember, there are lots of ways to stay connected, even when you can’t spend time face-to-face. Small gestures of connection will let your child know you are thinking of them even when you don’t have the energy for your normal activities or if you need to spend some time away from home. Staying connected is important to your child’s wellbeing and your family’s stability, and will help your child remember how important they are to you. 


1. Winston, R. & Chicot, R. (2016). The importance of early bonding on the long-term mental health and resilience of children. London Journal of Primary Care, 8(1), 12–14.

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