Wellbeing: Mental health is a family affair

Schools understandably focus on the mental health of students, but parents have a huge role to play - so should we be helping them too?

family

A focus on parents may seem surprising for a magazine aimed primarily at educators, but parental mental health is intimately related to the mental health of their children, and child mental health with how those children cope with school

In the recent national survey of child mental health carried out by NHS Digital, poor parental mental health was associated with all types of mental health conditions in all age groups studied (pre-school, primary and secondary school-age). 

As parental and child mental health were measured at the same time, we cannot tell whether parental mental health influenced children or the other way around.


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The impact probably works both ways.

There is a great deal of research evidence that poor maternal and also paternal mental health negatively influences their child’s socio-emotional and cognitive development, but much less research on the impact of poor child mental health on parents.

Children share both genes and environments with their parents, while parents provide hugely important elements of children’s environmental exposure.

The balance of many different genes will determine our risk of developing particular mental health conditions given adverse environmental challenges. And a parent (or a child) with a significant mental health condition is a good example of the latter. 

An impulsive, inattentive and overactive child may cope well in a structured environment, but if living with a parent with similar traits may find their difficulties amplified due to intermittent chaos at home. 

Similarly, members of families with a greater genetic loading for anxiety or depression are more likely to witness avoidance, rumination or emotional dysregulation in relatives.

A further consideration for teachers is that children may be distracted at school if they are worried about their parent’s health, or even miss school to care for them when problems are severe.

Three key concerns

Ultimately, three things will influence the impact of mental health conditions on parents and children; the parents, the child and the support available to both of them. Schools have long-term relationships with families.

In addition, schools in the UK have consistently demonstrated to be a default “front-line” service for mental health contacts

Although schools’ focus is necessarily on the child, and it is certainly not appropriate for teachers to diagnose mental health conditions in parents, having a point of contact within the pastoral support team who could signpost parents to sources of help might improve the child’s ability to cope with school through improvements in their parents’ mental health. 

Importantly, both childhood behavioural and emotional difficulties in younger children respond to interventions delivered to parents.

In the 2000s, many schools found parent support advisers invaluable in improving school engagement and supporting vulnerable families.

Such a model might warrant re-evaluation as our current generation of teenagers who have significantly poorer mental health than previous generations start to become parents.

Tamsin Ford is a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Cambridge

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