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Emotional distress is usually linked to anxiety and/or depression. Poor parental mental health is likely to lead to behavioural and emotional difficulties in children.
Around 20 per cent of mothers and 11 per cent of fathers are in emotional distress, according to the latest figures. Around 1 in 4 children now live with at least one parent in emotional distress. Of these children, around 3 in 4 are living with a mother in emotional distress, and just under half are living with a father in emotional distress.
A parent’s emotional distress can impact the child through direct exposure to their unpredictable or irrational behaviour, or neglect of the child. The quality of relationships between parents also affects the child as well as the support available to the family and the health and wellbeing of the parents. Poorer-quality relationships between parents result in greater behavioural problems, especially among children in lower-income families. Around half of children living with two parents who do not work have a parent in emotional distress. A 2004 survey also showed that children in families with neither parent working were more likely to experience mental health issues themselves.
Depending on the age of the child and the length of the period of emotional distress, the effects on the child differ. Long-term or repeated periods of emotional distress affect a child’s emotional, cognitive and behavioural development. Children are less likely to develop behavioural issues if a parent’s mental health problems are brief.
The effects on the child can begin during pregnancy; high levels of anxiety in the late stages of pregnancy can mean that the child has behavioural and/or emotional problems by age 7. Depressed mothers may be less responsive to their infants’ attempts to engage with them. This will affect the strength of the child’s attachment with their mother, which is likely to affect their cognitive functioning up to the age of 18 months. They are also likely to have poorer relations with peers at age 3.
Children whose fathers have persistent depression are likely to develop emotional and behavioural problems by age 3 ½. However, by age 7, the fathers’ mental health does not appear to affect the child’s behaviour.
Older children are often able to understand some aspects of a parent’s mental health problems and may therefore be tolerant of some disruptions to their relationship with the parent. However, girls in particular are prone to unhappiness due to parental emotional distress and some children also find themselves taking on a caretaking role. They may experience anxiety themselves which can manifest itself as angry outbursts and truancy from school.
Advice from experts on how to help children cope with a parent in emotional distress is to be honest with them and explain what is happening, even if they are young. Encourage them to talk about how they are feeling as children may keep quiet for fear of upsetting their parents. Most importantly, reassure them that it is not their fault and that the parent or parents will get better and try to spend time with them and keep a routine as much as possible. If additional support is needed, it may be appropriate to seek advice from your GP who may be able to refer you to a counsellor, either as a family or just for the child. Schools are also very important, especially if the child’s school work or behaviour has been affected. For children under 5, it may be helpful to speak to their health visitor. If you don’t already have one, speak to your GP.
The Counselling & Family Centre is a charity based in Trafford in South Manchester which offers free counselling for children and families with a household income of less than £30,000 per year. You do not have to live in Trafford to access their services. For more information, please visit their website.
The Family department at Myerson Solicitors act for parents who are going through child arrangements difficulties as a result of a parent’s emotional neglect or distress. Please contact us on 0161 941 4000 or email us firstname.lastname@example.org for further advice.