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Parenting with a mental health disorder

Parenting with a mental health disorder

Every year around one in four people living in the UK has a mental health disorder, with one in six people saying they’re experiencing a common mental health problem such as anxiety or depression in any given week (i). Anyone can be affected – whatever your age, socio-economic status, gender or level of physical health – and that includes people with children as well as those who are thinking of starting a family. 

It’s natural to worry if you’re a parent (or would-be parent) with a mental health disorder. After all, parenting already comes with its fair share of challenges. Yet it doesn’t mean it’s impossible to bring up a child successfully if you have mental well-being issues. Far from it. According to the NSPCC many parents with mental health problems are able to give their children safe and loving care, without their children being affected negatively in any way (ii). 

Having a mental health problem can, however, affect your ability to cope with looking after children and family life in general from time to time. When this happens, it’s important to be aware of the issues you and your children may face and to know where to get the help and support you need. 

How does mental illness affect parenting?

The extra challenges that affect parents with mental health disorders vary widely, as some parents may have more severe and/or persistent symptoms than others (depending on their diagnosed condition). Some may experience other issues that can affect their mental health too (and vice versa), such as problems with their relationship with their partner, work difficulties or financial worries. 

In general, however, if you’re a parent with a mental health disorder some of the problems you may experience when you’re stressed or unwell can include the following:

  • Struggling to deal with the everyday challenges of parenting that all mums and dads experience

  • Having low energy or worrying a lot more than usual

  • Finding it difficult to manage your emotions, including when you’re around your children

  • Struggling to manage your children’s behaviour effectively, including setting boundaries

  • Worrying about how your mental health may be affecting your children (including worrying about them taking on too many tasks to help out around the home)

  • Being unable to provide basic care for your children, including doing simple things like shopping and cooking

  • Worrying about becoming so unwell you might have to go into hospital, including what would happen to your children if that happened

  • Having difficulties balancing your work life with your family life


What percentage of parents struggle with mental health? 

According to the North Yorkshire Safeguarding Children Partnership, approximately 10 - 15 per cent of children in the UK live with a parent who has a mental health disorder (iii). 

However, the Royal College of Psychiatrists suggests that while many children grow up with a parent who has some degree of mental illness at some point or other, most of these parents will have mild or short-lived illnesses that are treated by their GP (iv). Some children, however, live with a parent who has a severe, long-lasting mental health disorder.

What mental health conditions can affect parenting?

Any type of mental health condition can have an impact on your ability to bring up your children. Some of these include:



How does parental mental health affect children?


While many adults with mental health disorders are successful parents, there is some evidence to suggest parental mental health issues may be a risk factor for the development of mental health problems in children and young people themselves (v). How likely a child of a parent with a mental health disorder may be to develop poor mental well-being can depend on any number of factors, including:

  • How long their parent has been affected by a mental health disorder and how severe their symptoms are

  • Other risk factors relating to their environment

*How well developed their social and emotional skills are

* Whether or not they’re overwhelmed by having to care for parents when they’re ill 

  • How much support their parents have access to when they’re unwell

  • How well they understand their parent’s health condition and why it’s happening


Children with a parent who has a mental health disorder can develop problems themselves because they may worry more than normal, or they may blame themselves for their parent’s condition. They may develop anxiety because they frequently become separated from a parent who often needs hospital care, or they may be teased or bullied by other children at school because of their parent’s condition. Acting as a carer for a mentally unwell parent or taking care of siblings and missing school can also put undue stress on older children and young people.

These types of stressors can affect children in several ways. For instance they may become withdrawn and anxious, they may develop physical health problems, they may struggle with school performance or they may worry they’ll develop the same mental health disorder as their parent. 

According to the North Yorkshire Safeguarding Children Partnership, the ways parental mental ill health affects children can also vary according to a child’s age (iii):

  • Babies up to one year old -The impacts on children of this age can include poor attachment, lack of warmth and parenting inconsistencies 

  • Young children -Behavioural problems, anxiety, becoming withdrawn, conduct disorder and aggression can affect younger children

  • Teenagers -Impacts on this age group include behavioural problems, conduct disorder, depression, school difficulties, increased risk of developing a mental health problem and difficulties with friendships


Which mental illness is the most inherited?


One of the reasons children of parents with a mental health disorder might develop similar conditions themselves is that certain disorders are thought to have a genetic link – bipolar disorder, for instance. It’s also possible that some parents may pass on hereditary traits to their children that could make them more likely to develop a mental health disorder. However, it’s important to remember that having a mental health disorder doesn’t automatically mean your child or children will develop issues with their mental wellbeing too. 


How to monitor your child’s mental wellbeing


If you’re a parent with a mental health disorder there are certain signs you can look out for in your child that may signal they’re not coping very well or starting to develop a problem with their own mental health. Some of these signs include:


  • Behaviour changes – becoming more angry or aggressive, for instance, or more quiet and withdrawn

  • Abandoning activities they used to look forward to and enjoy

  • Avoiding social situations

  • Having problems sleeping

  • Performing poorly at school

  • Experiencing weight loss or loss of appetite

  • Having regular headaches or stomach aches

  • Having difficulties concentrating


You can also ask people you trust – including teachers, friends and family members – to keep an eye on your child, asking them to watch out for problems with their behaviour and wellbeing. Try to go to parents’ evenings at their school as often as you can too, as this will help you keep track of how they’re coping when they’re outside of the family home. If you are at all worried about how your child is developing, speak to your GP. 


Supporting yourself as a parent with a mental health disorder 


It’s natural to want to be a perfect parent, but in reality, perfect parents don’t exist – even in those who don’t have a mental health disorder. But looking after yourself can be one of the best things you can do, not just for yourself but for your children too. Here are a few examples of what you can do:


  • Try to stay active, as exercise can really help boost your mood.

  • Make time for relaxation, even if it’s just for 10 minutes each day.

  • Get a better night’s sleep – if you’re having problems in this department there’s plenty of advice in our guide to sleep and insomnia.  

  • If you’re a smoker, giving up can help on many levels – speak to your GP if you need advice, or read our guide to stop smoking.

  • Spend time every now and then doing something you enjoy – this can be even more beneficial if it’s an activity the whole family can get involved in.

  • Eating a healthy balanced diet – including at least five portions of fruit and veg every day – can also help make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need to support your physical and mental health and to ensure you don’t feel even more fatigued or burnt out.

You may also want to consider taking a multivitamin and mineral tablet, which can be especially helpful on those days when you don’t eat as healthily as you should. Another reason to take a multivitamin is that it could help you deal with stress – one study, for instance, suggests people taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement may experience lower levels of anxiety and cope with stressful situations more effectively (vi). 

Other nutrients you may want to make sure you’re getting in your diet – either through food or by taking a supplement – include:

  • B vitamins (several of the Bs – including B6, B12 and folic acid – have been linked with mental health). B-rich foods include peanuts, oats, bananas, fish, meat, poultry, soya beans, dairy foods, leafy green vegetables, broccoli, kidney beans, chickpeas, peas and fortified breakfast cereals.

  • Magnesium (if you’re stressed your levels may be low, plus magnesium could help you get a better night’s sleep). Find it in spinach, nuts, wholemeal bread, pumpkin seeds, cocoa powder and soya foods.

  • Zinc (this is one of several nutrients linked with depression disorders (vii)). Food sources include dairy, meat, poultry, shellfish, bread, wheatgerm and pumpkin seeds.

  • Fish oils (low levels of nutrients in oily fish called omega-3 fatty acids have also been linked with depression (vii)). Try to eat at least one portion of oily fish – such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring or pilchards – each week, but limit yourself to two portions if you’re pregnant or planning to have a baby. A high-strength fish oil supplement is an ideal alternative if you don’t like eating fish. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan you can get the same benefits by taking an omega-3 supplement sourced from marine algae instead of fish. 

  • Vitamin C (also linked with depression in low levels). Get it from oranges and other citrus fruit as well as berries, broccoli, red and green peppers, grapefruit and potatoes. 

  • Vitamin D (again linked with depression (viii), plus the risk of deficiency is high if you live in a northern hemisphere country, especially during the autumn and winter months, as our main source of vitamin D is sunlight). In the UK, all children over the age of one year and all adults are advised to take a daily supplement containing 10mcg vitamin D during the autumn and winter, as it’s difficult to get enough from your diet (food sources include oily fish, liver, egg yolks, red meat and fortified foods). 


Supporting your child’s wellbeing 

There are lots of things you can do for your children’s wellbeing, including making sure they stay active, eat well and have plenty of rest. Encouraging and supporting them as much as you can will also help, as will making sure they feel secure and loved as often as possible. 

If your child or children are old enough, it’s important to have an honest talk with them as often as possible – especially about your mental health – as this can tackle any feelings of fear or confusion they may be having and help them understand the things you do or the way you behave. If they aren’t comfortable talking to you directly, try to arrange for them to have a chat with another person – a friend, family member or teacher for instance – whenever they need to talk about their problems. 

Meanwhile, if your child or children help out around the home try to be aware of the impact these extra responsibilities may be having on them, and find out what support you can get elsewhere – from friends or family, for instance – if you think they may be under too much pressure. 

What support is available for families struggling with mental health?

Besides friends and family there are charities and other organisations that offer help, advice and support to parents with mental health disorders and their children. Some of the services that may be available to you – depending on your local area – include advocacy (where an independent person listens to your needs and supports your choices), social care (extra support from your local authority for you and/or your children) and mental health services (ask your GP for details of the services available where you live). If you’ve been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, your GP or a member of your mental health team can tell you how to access these services.

Some of the charities and other organisations that can provide support for parents and children include the following:

Family Lives (080 800 222) 
Gingerbread (for single parents) (0808 802 0925) 
Family Action (0808 802 6666)  
Childline (for children and young people) (0800 1111)
Babble (for young carers) 
Young Minds  
Mental Health Matters 
Sane (0300 304 700) 
mumsnet (forums about parenting) 
NSPCC (0808 800 5000) 
You can also find out more about a variety of mental health conditions in our pharmacy health library’s mental health section



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  5. , A double-blind, placebo-controlled, double-centre study of the effects of an oral multivitamin-mineral combination on stress. S Afr Med J. ;90:1216-1223. Available online:

  6. , , Antidepressant foods: An evidence-based nutrient profiling system for depression. World J Psychiatry. ;8(3): 97-104. Available online:

  7. , Vitamin D deficiency and depression in adults: systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Psychiatry. ;202:100-7. Available online:

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Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.

Our Author - Christine Morgan


Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.

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