If a mother or father has a mental illness, their children may be more likely to have a mental illness as well. The World Health Organization said that if one family member has a particular disease, then the likelihood increases for other members in the same family to have the same problems. The more severe the illness, the greater chance it can be passed on to children. A mother’s mental health may affect her child in three ways: genetically, during pregnancy, and developmentally/environmentally.
Mental issues are hereditary disorders because there is a strong connection between genetics and mental health. It means that if a parent has one of these disorders, their children are more likely to develop the same issue. That’s why many home care agencies provide long-term care for seniors. However, this is not always the case because mental illness has different symptoms than parents’ generation. The methods of diagnosing the disease do not necessarily transfer over either, which leads us to the following two ways children can be affected by their parent’s mental health.
A mother struggling with mental health may experience adverse effects on her unborn child during pregnancy. Mothers dealing with depression and other psychological disorders may not take care of themselves properly while pregnant, leading to certain complications in the child.
We need to think about how a parent’s mental state can affect a child through what psychologists call “the psychopathology of everyday life.” This phrase was coined by George Vaillant in his landmark study of adult adaptation, The Natural History of Alcoholism. This study found evidence for subtle ways that parental pathology affected children.
In many cases, children were exposed to an array of inappropriate or even dangerous behaviors from their parents as they struggled with serious psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia or severe depression. For example, a parent might be struggling with delusions and hallucinations while caring for his preschool children. Or they may have been exposed to physical abuse from a disturbed parent who was feeling overwhelmed with the demands of daily life.
In some cases, these children had an increased risk of psychological problems in childhood, but they were also more likely to develop into well-functioning adults later in life. How could this happen? Why didn’t these traumatic events damage their mental functioning in lasting ways?
Several possible explanations for this apparent paradox:
Most parents would not intentionally put their children at risk. So when they were experiencing the symptoms of a psychiatric illness, it’s unlikely that they would act in ways that placed their children directly in harm’s way. Also, in some cases, these actions would be visible to other people in the family or community, and steps would be taken to protect the children from further abuse or neglect.
When problems such as delusions or hallucinations become severe, a parent would likely receive treatment for their disorder. It could happen through the help of friends and family members, but often, treatment might require hospitalization to manage symptoms more effectively. During this time, relatives would take over caregiving until the parents could resume their role.
We know that children don’t develop in a vacuum; they rely on relationships with others for support and nurturance during all stages of childhood development. And even though children may have been exposed to a parent’s psychiatric severe symptoms, they were also receiving comfort and care from other adults. It might be a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, a loving neighbor, or perhaps a caring nanny who was often employed to help with the children when the parents were struggling.
The fact that some of these risk factors only affected confident children suggests that additional variables probably increased or decreased their likelihood of psychological problems as children or as adults. Maybe some of those influences overlapped with those risk factors already mentioned. For instance, perhaps those kids who showed higher rates of depression as adults grew up in homes where one or both parents had severe mental illness and substance abuse problems. On the other hand, maybe those kids who managed to develop into well-adjusted adults did so in part because one or both of their parents had more secure attachments with their parents during childhood.
We also need to remember that most children (about 80-90%) exposed to parental psychiatric illness will not develop lifelong psychological problems themselves. So it’s essential that when assessing risk factors for psychopathology in families, we don’t overgeneralize the findings from high-risk samples.
Also, there tends to be a lot of variation between different studies in how researchers define “severe mental illness” when carrying out these types of investigations. So whenever you read an article about this topic, spend some time thinking about precisely what type of psychiatric disorder is being described. If you can find out more about the symptoms present for parents or children, their course of illness (was it episodic-like many mood disorders tend to be?). Whether they ever received treatment, it can help to clarify how severe severe severe this problem was for them.
Keeping all of these issues in mind, researchers are now developing programs that will hopefully prevent some parental psychiatric illnesses from happening. One area that has gotten a lot of attention recently is early detection protocols for bipolar disorder. We know that episodes of mania often precede bouts of depression in people with bipolar II, so if we could intervene early on when someone experiences high levels of energy and increased production rates, this might prevent them from becoming depressed later on.
Because parenting is meant to be a selfless act, parents dealing with mental issues put their children in an awkward position because they cannot provide the proper care. If parents do not want to hurt their children or risk passing on the disorder, they must receive the right kind of treatment. Suppose you are a parent struggling with partaking in your regular activities, taking care of yourself, and parenting your children properly because of mental health issues. In that case, it may be time to speak with someone about getting the help that you need.