Supporting children of parents living with mental illness

Emerging Minds, Australia, October, 2022

Resource Summary

This resource has been developed to help parents, and their family and friends, learn how to best support children when their parent is experiencing mental illness. It has been developed with the guidance of family members with lived experience, practitioners and researchers.

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.

It can be overwhelming for children to see their parent struggling with mental health difficulties. As a parent, you want to ensure your children are being cared for when you are too unwell to look after them yourself. For family and friends it can be equally hard to know when and how to help without upsetting or undermining the child’s parents. This resource aims to help parents, and their family and friends, learn how to best support children when their parent is experiencing mental illness.

Be prepared

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, whom 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.

Wherever possible, the parent living with mental 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.

Talking to children

Children and young people cope better during difficult times if:

  • they understand what is happening
  • they know they are not to blame for what is happening
  • their routines continue as normally as possible (such as school and recreational activities)
  • they know who will look after them if their parent can’t (and how they will stay connected with their parent); and
  • they have a reliable adult to spend time with and talk to about their feelings, should they wish to.


As a parent experiencing mental illness, take the opportunity in moments when you are either feeling better, or have the support of a GP or mental health professional, to talk to your children about your mental illness and who will be responsible for looking after them when you are unwell. It is important children know who they can rely on to care for them, who they can talk to, and who is a trusted adult.

Family and friends

Considering what the parent wants to share (if this has been previously discussed), family and friends can help the child understand their parent’s experience of mental illness and progress in managing it, before the child fills in the gaps themselves, potentially with the wrong information.

To learn more about the role of different mental health practitioners, view our suite of explainer videos.

In the following video (4 mins, 29 secs), from the Looking Back series, Laura is looking back on growing up with a parent experiencing mental health difficulties.

Depending on the family member or friend’s existing relationship with a child it may take some time to build a level of trust. Initially, children and young people may feel uncomfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings. They can experience a complicated mix of emotions about sharing such information with someone other than their parent, and some may feel they’re being disloyal to their parent by doing so.

Family or friends can gently but regularly let them know they are available and help create opportunities for the child to open up about how they’re feeling. Small actions such as a checking in with them regularly via text message or just letting them know they are thought of can help. It might be as simple as just texting about something they are interested in (unrelated to their parent). Examples of this include texting about how their football team played or letting them know about a good movie on a streaming service. Over time the child or teenager might feel more comfortable about opening up, but often just knowing someone is there to listen should they need them is enough to provide a level of comfort. However, talking is important because it provides an opportunity to relieve fears and anxieties.

‘Growing up in a large regional centre of New South Wales with Mum who was…unpredictable, funny, sometimes in bed for days on end, compassionate, sometimes wildly violent, beautiful, sometimes dirty and unwashed, engaging, sometimes rude and disagreeable in public…was a tough gig for me as a kid who just wanted to fit in and be “normal”.’

– Brooke, adult child of a parent with a mental illness, Northern Territory

What might children ask?

Encourage children to ask questions and remember to be honest about what you know and don’t know. Reassure them that you will do your best to find out answers to their questions if you don’t know – and follow through. Children will likely have new questions as circumstances change or as information ‘sinks in’. Prepare yourself to answer questions such as:

  • Why is/are mum/dad/they acting that way?
  • Why do they… (cry/sleep a lot/not listen)?
  • Is Mum/Dad angry with me?
  • Will I get in trouble for talking to you about this?
  • What is a mental illness?
  • Can you catch mental illness? (And ‘how is it diagnosed?’)
  • What causes mental illness – and can I catch it?
  • What help are they getting?
  • When or will mum/dad/they get better?

When answering questions like these consider the child’s age and their ability to understand what they are being told. Even very young children can gain some understanding of what’s going on when told, for example: ‘Mummy’s not well, you’ve done nothing wrong and she’s getting help so she can get better‘.

It’s OK to not have all the answers but being prepared helps. Be honest, but positive, hopeful and reassuring. Remember that one discussion is never enough – real understanding takes time and a child’s questions and need for information change as they grow.

Family and friends should encourage the child or teenager to ask questions or raise concerns whenever they want – and then be there for them when they need to talk. Keeping in touch via text messages (for those with phones) is a great way to help teenagers, in particular, to open up. If they do not have a phone, make time to just hang out as regularly as possible.

If children or teens still don’t want to talk, don’t force them to. Give them the number for Kids Helpline (1800  55 1800) and let them know they can call 24-hours-a-day to speak to trained counsellors anonymously for free.

Check out our age-appropriate resources on speaking to toddlers, school-age children and young people about parental mental illness for further guidance on managing difficult conversations:

‘Remember me in the midst of your lessons, your meetings, your sessions and your conversations.’ – Laura

Helping children feel secure and connected

Children are often concerned about how daily life will change when a parent is mentally unwell. Maintaining boundaries and routines where possible will help children feel safe and secure during difficult times and when they are away from parents. Taking children to childcare, school or appointments, and encouraging them to participate in their usual activities, not only helps keep routines – it ensures that they remain connected to external supports in their community. These supports outside of family and close friends are especially important for children who are more familiar with talking to support adults such as teachers, school counsellors or sports coaches than non-immediate family or friends.

Our care plans for children, and the While I’m Away app, are useful tools for parents, family and friends to record information that helps manage children’s daily routines.

However, the most important connections to maintain are those between child and parent. Children thrive when they have strong connections with parents. Strong, positive relationships with parents help children to feel safe and secure, which supports their learning, development and exploration of the world around them.

Staying connected when living with mental illness: a guide for parents provides some practical strategies to help maintain strong family connections when unwell or away from home due to illness.

Are you concerned about their safety?

If you’re a family member or friend who is concerned about a child’s safety, discuss these concerns with their parent if possible.

Parents can support their children by giving them details of the trusted family members or friends they can contact in an emergency. Let children know that if they ever feel scared or alone, they can also call the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1 800 for free at any time.

If you have ongoing concerns about a child’s safety do not hesitate to seek advice from the child protective services organisation in your state or territory. Contacting Child Protection Services does not mean children will be removed from their homes, but the organisation can provide you with advice and support.

If there is an immediate risk to the safety of a child please call Emergency Services on 000.

‘I was angry at first that social services were called but it wasn’t about taking the children away. Instead, they provided support and services to help us.’

– Anne, mother of five, grandparent of four, Victoria

Grandparents in particular have the opportunity to be an important source of support for an adult child living with mental illness and their grandchildren. For this reason, we have a dedicated resource for grandparents: Supporting your grandchildren when their parent is living with mental illness.

By preparing for situations where they may be too unwell to parent, people living with mental illness can ensure that their children will be cared for by trusted adults they are comfortable with if their mental illness prevents them from looking after their children for a time. While advocating for the children of a loved one living with mental illness can put family and friends in a difficult position, they have a special opportunity to support the parent through recovery while helping their children to feel safe, secure and connected.

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