The Christmas holiday is a time for families to spend time together – to share presents and play games – but for some families it can also be a difficult time. There are many pressures on families, and being a parent with a mental illness brings added stress for both the parents and children. Our Time’s founder Dr Alan Cooklin offers some advice for those families over the festive period.
When a parent suffers from any level of mental illness, it does make the job of being a parent more difficult. This in turn can make the parent feel as though they are failing, then guilty and anxious, then ultimately feel worse themselves. However, most children are very resilient and sensitive to their parent’s needs, even if they do not always show it. So quite small things – if you can manage at least some of them – can both reassure your child and help them to cope.
- Try to find out as much as you can about your illness and share what you have learnt with your child. Do not try to hide it or pretend it is not happening. Instead, show that you are trying to take charge of it by thinking about it and discussing it openly. Parents naturally try to protect their children from upsetting things, but actually it’s best to explain as much as possible to children in a simple way. Often children sense problems, and research shows that they cope much better when they can understand how difficulties happen.
- Explain that a mental illness always has many causes, from inheritance to family and daily life. Tell your child that their experience will be different from yours and that they won’t necessarily develop the same illness.
- Explain that your child is not responsible either for your illness or your emotional state. Like all parents you will get ratty sometimes, but the illness may lead to this being shown in very extreme ways. It does not mean that your child is responsible for those extreme states.
- When you need to withdraw a bit in order to protect yourself, try and agree a code or some simple way of letting your child know that that is happening and why. Some parents use ‘my feelings filter is not working today’ so the child knows the parent will withdraw until they feel more in control.
- Try not to overload the child with too many details of your emotional life. Understanding that you might need to withdraw when you are overwhelmed by feelings may be enough.
- During better periods remember to show interest and curiosity, but not too much probing, about what is happening at school or in other activities your child cares about.
- Try not to become too afraid of your child’s feelings. Some will be the normal issues of children and young people. Try to explain to your child that you realise you will not be emotionally available to them in your bad times. However, also explain that in good times you would like to hear, and that you will actually let them know when these happen.