Remember Philip Larkin’s words about what our parents do to us? That sentiment has probably occurred to most parents. But if, as a parent, you experience mental health problems, there is a whole new level of worry about what you might be doing to your children.

I have researched and written about perinatal mental illness, but the question of its effect on children is a particularly thorny one. It has been a battle to bring postnatal depression (PND) into the open, with the unnamed soldiers being the scores of women too afraid in the past decades to put a name to the darkness which overcame them - for fear of losing their children. No wonder then that some of us campaigning on keeping that light turned on are wary of scaring mothers off again.

But with the right approach, and the understanding that mental health problems can be managed, it is time to address the effects of not only PND, but any mental health problem on our children.

There are now perinatal psychiatrists working in the NHS – something today’s grandmothers would not have had the benefit of – which points to a recognition that parents’ state of mind has an impact on their children’s development, even in utero. But before parents accept another stick to beat themselves with, it is worth taking a step back. Dr Bill Young of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) is a Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist. He attacks preconceptions head-on by saying that this is not just a nature versus nurture debate.

“Nowadays, wider influences have impact.” Talking through what these wider influences might include, he references the media (traditional and social) and the school setting a child is in. At a pre-school age, this would be more about neighbourhood, and economic background. “Poverty is stressful on parents – stress is the common factor in underlying conditions, if not the actual cause.” As a child gets older, wider social issues come into play. Dr Young works with the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS). From his work there he is clear about the impact schools have on young people’s mental health. Suddenly it seems that to focus on just the parents and their possible mental health problems misses a big part of the picture.

That’s not to negate the impact of a parent’s mental health both antenatally and in a child’s early years. But parents are not without options. You may not be able to change your family history of mental health problems, but you can do something about a child’s understanding of them.

Talk about it

Increasingly, parents are encouraged and supported in talking to their children openly about mental health.  Dr Young advises “Parents need to make clear it’s a difficulty they have – it’s not something the child has caused.”

Pick your moment

Dr Young emphasises that parents should have a clear intention to talk to their child, choosing a calm moment. He admits that it is natural to feel the urge to do this when the parent is feeling stressed, but that urge is a self-protective one – not the nurturing one which should be paramount.

Enlist the help of a professional

If you are seeing a mental health practitioner or your GP is aware of your problems, consider introducing them to the discussion. Or work with your child’s school: many schools have introduced mindfulness techniques to promote mental health awareness, and may be able to support the message you are giving your child.

Resist the urge to say everything in the first conversation

“Introduce something and name it – and ask the child what they notice," Dr Young suggests.  You may discover that your child knows far more than you realise.

Keep talking about it

Dr Young explains that even if a parent is not coping in the ideal way with stress, it might be helpful to explain to their child what is happening, and that they are going to try to manage it, whether that is by going for a walk, or doing a breathing exercise. “Labelling is very helpful for parents – try saying ‘this is a stressful moment’, and even ‘I’m sorry this is happening and I’m sorry if it’s affecting you – I’m going to see if I can manage this’.”  

It is never too late to show your children what you are dealing with

People with mental health problems rarely think of themselves as inspiring, but that is exactly what they can be, Dr Young suggests. “It is never too late, even with teenage children. It has a very powerful effect on anyone around, to see someone managing something very difficult with intention, purpose and kindness… it is inspiring.”

Further information:

MindEd provides e-learning and advice around mental health and wellbeing for anyone who comes into contact with children and young people.

Everyday Blessings: Mindfulness for Parents