How Do Schools Support Children Whose Parent Has a Mental Illness?


families diverseBetween one in four and one in five adults will experience a mental illness during their lifetime. At the time of their illness, at least one quarter to half of these will be parents. Their children have an increased rate of mental health problems, indicating a strong link between adult and child mental health. Parental mental illness has an adverse effect on child mental health and development, while child psychological and psychiatric disorders and the stress of parenting impinge on adult mental health. Furthermore, the mental health of children is a strong predictor of their mental health in adulthood.

School children who have a parent suffering from a mental illness, are impacted in many other ways. By nature of their parent’s mental health condition, many children are thrust into adult-like responsibilities at home and in the community and this compounds and potentially compromises the responsibilities they already have as learners at school. With this in mind, children will need extra supports from educators in these settings.

Schools are tasked with providing academic instruction, promoting achievement and maintaining safe and supportive learning environments for all students. The programming and general curriculum should be comprehensively designed to address the ‘whole child’ and age- appropriate developmental, social-emotional and intellectual needs, as well. Addressing needs, specific to the demographics, should be complemented by culturally responsive and evidence-based practices.

In general, parents and children want appropriate understanding and support based on the different needs of individual family members. This support needs to be sustained over time, but should also vary to reflect any change in circumstances.

More specifically, parents want:

  • more understanding, less stigma and discrimination relative to mental health
  • support in looking after their children
  • good quality services to meet the needs of their children
  • parent support groups
  • child-centered provisions and ongoing support and
  • freedom from fear of the removal of their child from the home.

For their children, parents want:

  • opportunities to openly and safely discuss any fears, confusion and guilt
  • opportunities to engage with adults they can trust and participate in activities where they will engage with other children
  • reasonable explanation and age -appropriate discussions surrounding mental health;they need to understand the impact on their parent]
  • continuity of care with minimal disruption of routines, esp. during crises[For schools, this means instructional continuity. Educators aren’t expected to go along as though nothing changed, but rather mindfully provide structure and the routine sense of stability for students.]

Children and young people, and those taking on a caring or adult-like role in the family want:

  • a reliable contact person in case of any crisis events
  • practical help with carrying out added adult-like responsibilities in recognition of their role in the family
  • someone to talk to-not necessarily formal counseling
  • chance to make and see friends.

Using your observational skills, knowledge and experience:

Your skills, knowledge and experience may help in noting
changes in coping, attention and presentation that may
indicate when a child or family is in need of support.
Some possible signs are:
• Poor attendance and/or interactions with others.
• Regression of development and/or emotional maturity.
• Taking on adult caring responsibilities for their parent.
• Worrying excessively about their parent’s welfare.
• Overly shy or aggressive behavior.
• Disturbed or self-destructive behavior.
• Unkempt or very changeable physical appearance of the child.
• Working very hard to obey or please adults, this may appear as ‘perfect’ behavior.

Ways you can assist children

You can help children to develop resilience by:

• Creating a warm and predictable environment in the classroom.
• Enhancing each child’s sense of responsibility and belonging. Assigning a ‘special’ role to a child can help them to feel valued.
• Being available to listen. Children respond well to staff that are genuinely interested in them, even if they know you can’t solve their problems.
• Supporting the child to use the coping skills they have and enhancing their social and communication skills.
• Encouraging and supporting the child to have positive expectations of themself and their family.
• Assisting the child to find age-appropriate information on mental illness.
• Strengthening the child’s self-esteem and resilience by providing opportunities for them to practice and achieve mastery in school related activities.

What to do if you notice changes in the child that concern you:
• Express your observations to the child’s parent(s) sensitively and ask open-ended questions (e.g. “I’ve noticed some changes in your child (or you) lately. How are things going?”)
• Use active listening techniques and reflect back to the parent what they tell you, to be sure you understand. Be calm, open and non-judgemental.
• Offer to help them find support or information. If you feel uncomfortable about talking with the parent, seek help from your school principal, counseling or other school based support staff.
• Schools have access to a range of supports for children and parents. Your school will have clear policies and procedures to support decision-making when there are serious concerns about children’s well-being or safety. This policy should outline your obligations under the child protection guidelines in your
state. When discussing any concerns with parents, consider highlighting that reporting your concerns can often assist the family to access extra support.

Build understanding about mental health and illness within the school community, and include relevant articles in your school newsletter, as well. Display posters and pamphlets in key areas around the building to promote awareness and decrease stigma. Celebrate Mental Health Week and embed such issues in the curriculum. Encourage discussion and read literature pertaining to mental health in the classroom, and include a wide range of books in the school library also.

Building relationships is always important, but with parents who experience a mental illness, the barriers can make this a slower process. It can help to find something you have in common, such as a shared interest. This could be anything (e.g. following the same sport, interest in music or the local community news). Parents have a wide range of interests and experiences. The challenge
is finding something that you have in common to help build rapport between you both.`Be positive, be realistic, be flexible and persevere in your school’s supports for families and children of parents with a mental illness. Include parents and help their child feel included and supported. It does take a village!


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