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How Family Mental Health Affects Child Development

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Parenthood is not easy, and parents can often find themselves feeling overwhelmed and stressed. Children pick up on the emotional distress their caregivers may be experiencing, and like a sponge, they absorb these emotions.

This can cause developmental issues if left unaddressed.

Loving relationships with caring, responsible adults are essential to a child’s upbringing and healthy development.

The Emotional Development of Children

Early experiences shape the emotional development of a child. The parent-child bond plays a significant role and has the most influence on the child’s brain development.

Parents might be more aware of children’s physical growth, but a lot is also happening in their emotional development.

As children develop, so too do their brains.

In fact, by age five, a child’s brain is 90% developed. Children’s relationships with other adults in their lives are the key to a healthy life as it sets the foundation of their emotional maturing. Children learn to regulate and experience emotions, healthily express them, and relate to others in their formative years.

During these years, they can also go through significant mental health problems. However, their feelings are often dismissed, minimized, or not addressed.

What are some Adverse Experiences and Risk Factors for Children?

When children are faced with traumatic events such as family turmoil or emotional distress, it threatens their mental health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) uses the term Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) to describe these traumatic events. As mentioned in one study, economic hardship is the most common adverse childhood experience (ACE) reported nationally and in almost all states, followed by divorce or separation of a parent or guardian.

Other common adverse experiences that affect the health and development of a child are:

  • Persistent poverty, homelessness, or economic stress
  • Chronic neglect
  • Being a victim of domestic violence
  • Recurrent physical or sexual abuse
  • Incarceration of a parent or a household member
  • Parental mental health disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • The separation or divorce of parents
  • Families with high conflict
  • Experiencing racism and community violence
  • Having a family member attempt or die by suicide

The impact of recurring maltreatment and chronic neglect, violence, or parental mental illness has lifelong implications. It puts children at a heightened risk of developing mental health disorders along with a myriad of other physical health risks.

Does the Mental Health of a Parent Affect Children?

All families at some point experience challenges. This does not mean that the emotional development of their children will suffer. Many parents with mental health problems manage their condition, and their children do not experience any adverse effects.

Many children will grow up with a parent who, at some point, will have a mild mental illness. When parents have access to appropriate support, they can minimize the impact on their children.

However, parents can pass down mental health disorders that can have lasting consequences on childhood development when that support is missing. The risks to children increase when parental mental health disorders exist together with domestic abuse and other ACEs.

These traumatic events leave children vulnerable and increase the likelihood that mental health problems will affect them even into their adult years. Not only does it affect the brain architecture, but these events increase the chances of developing heart disease and diabetes, impairing academic achievements, and abusing substances.

Every parent wants what is best for their child. The best way to ensure mental wellbeing in children is to provide a consistent family life where they are safe, taken care of, and supported.

What Can Be Done to Foster Family Mental Health?

There is a stigma around parents seeking help for mental health problems. This makes it harder for parents to socialize and ask for support. Lack of support and feelings of isolation will only worsen any mental struggle.

Be open and honest with your family, including your children, about mental health issues. Parents who acknowledge their difficulties and are willing to accept support are on the road to recovery.

Some parents do not share this part of their lives with their children because they want to protect them. But children are smarter than we give them credit for and can pick up on cues.

By explaining mental health and the available treatments, children can be part of the recovery process. Although it may seem like a delicate subject, there are some strategies that parents can use when talking to their kids about mental health therapy.

Other methods to implement that can empower children are to:

  • Actively listen and be present
  • Provide a safe and open environment
  • Avoid labels, “depressed” and “anxious” may be too foreign to a child; use sad and scared instead
  • Let your child express emotions and actively talk about them
  • Model healthy behavior
  • Respond calmly during elevated emotions
  • Offer reassurance and love every day
  • Teach communication and coping skills
  • Look at what adaptations you can make to support children

The ideal approach to recovery is to reduce the source of toxic stress in the caregivers. Behavioral and mental health interventions can help mitigate the effects that parents and caregivers experience. Early intervention can prevent negative outcomes and set families on the right track to wellness.


Poor parental mental health can have a detrimental effect on the health and development of children. To give children the best chance to reach their full potential, families need to create safe, stable, and nurturing relationships, sometimes with the help of professionals.



About the Author: Ivana Radevska is an HR and benefits content expert at Shortlister. She speaks three languages and enjoys writing guides for HR professionals.


The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.

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