Children & Adolescents Clinic

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Clinical Reference Systems: Pediatric Advisor 10.0

Children of Parents with Mental Illness

Children who have a mentally ill parent have a higher risk for developing mental illnesses than other children. The risk is particularly strong when the parent's illness is manic-depressive illness, schizophrenia, alcoholism or other drug abuse, or major depression. When both parents are mentally ill, the chance is even greater that the child might become mentally ill.

Risk can be inherited from parents through the genes. Some risk also comes from parents' behavior or moods. Mental disorders can keep parents from providing the love and guidance necessary for a child's healthy development. An inconsistent, unpredictable family environment contributes to psychiatric illness in children. Mental illness can hurt the marriage and the parenting abilities of the couple, which in turn hurts the child.

Some protective or positive aspects of a child's life can decrease the risk, including:

  • understanding by the child that his or her parent is ill and that the child is not to blame
  • a stable home environment
  • a sense of being loved by the ill parent
  • a naturally stable and happy personality in the child
  • inner strength and good coping skills in the child
  • a strong relationship with a healthy adult
  • friends
  • interest in and success at school
  • other outside interests for the child
  • help from outside the family to improve the family environment (for example, marital psychotherapy or a class in parenting).

Medical, mental health, or social service professionals working with mentally ill adults need to inquire about the children and adolescents, especially about their mental health and emotional development. It is often useful for such youngsters to be referred to a child and adolescent psychiatrist for an evaluation.

Individual or family psychiatric treatment can help a child toward healthy development despite the problem of the parental psychiatric illness. A trained professional can help the family work with the positive elements in the home and the natural strengths of the child. With treatment, the family can learn ways to lessen the effects of a parent's mental illness on the child.

Unfortunately, families, professionals, and society often pay most attention to the mentally ill parent and ignore the children in the family. Providing more attention and support to the children of a psychiatrically ill parent is an important way to help prevent mental illnesses from passing from one generation to the next.

Developed by the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.
Copyright 1999 Clinical Reference Systems