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1/10/23

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Parent’s Mental Health: The Impact of a Child’s Mental Health Struggles

by Jason Kahn, PhD, Co-founder and Chief Science Officer of Mightier

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The mental exhaustion seems to be the thing that gets most parents. All parents face a constant set of worries. Yet these worries somehow get magnified when a mental health challenge gets layered on top. All the same parts of parenting remain: the needs of school, sports, music, friends, siblings. Dinner and bedtime. Yet each of these activities take on a heightened flavor. Will the adults understand my child? How can I help my child succeed? Parents expect the energy that comes from increased doctor appointments, or the IEP meetings, or anything else you can see. But the idea that helping a child navigate mental health needs seeps into every aspect of their life drains parents in ways that we’re not always ready for.

That’s how it works for me, at least. I am the parent of a child with ADHD. We will happily sign up for all services available. We didn’t prepare for the constant questions about how he does in novel situations, how he’ll react to something he doesn’t understand. How we will address the inevitable feedback from grownups around him, and how much we should engage in trying to help him and others succeed in situations. Every single life activity can come to feel like a balancing act. We could talk to coach about his needs, but is this really a way to set him up long term? How does he learn to take skills on himself? These discussions and decisions permeate every activity, and the constant need for decisions and plans (or lack of plans) can start to wear anyone out.

Research echoes this story. Alexandra Schnabel and colleagues[1] reported clinical anxiety and depression at rates over 10 times global averages for the parents of children with autism. Kristene Cheung and Jennifer Theule report that parents of children with ADHD are over 2.85 times more likely to have a diagnosable mental health health disorder[2]. Clinical levels of mental health disorders mask the countless parents who have extra mental health needs but would not quite rise to the stringent requirements of a mental health diagnosis. There are many more parents out there who would benefit from extra supports for themselves as they face the demands of raising a child with a mental health disorder. Parents can do a lot of good for themselves (and their child) by remembering that their mental wellbeing plays a key part in their child’s mental wellbeing. Much like child mental illness can be a risk factor for a child, parent mental illness can have an impact on the child. We can end up in a negative cycle, where parent and child are reinforcing each other’s negative emotions, through no fault of their own. The escape, no matter where one is within the cycle, is to think about our own wellbeing as a part of our child’s wellbeing, and find strategies where we can remember to support ourselves.

There are any number of strategies that parents can try. Like any list of strategies, sadly no one can expect a single magic bullet. Rather, parents can experiment with ideas and advice, and find the right approaches for their situation.

  1. Prioritize sleep. An often-overlooked approach, but important for both kids and adults. Children with neurodevelopmental disorders often have lower quality of sleep than other children. This sleep quickly spills into the parents’ lives, as light night trips to support a never-ending bedtime invariable lead to less parent sleep. Lack of parent sleep is a risk factor for mental illness, as parents lose the opportunity to recharge for the next day. If your child has trouble sleeping, there are countless resources out in the world. The Child Mind Institute’s article on child sleep[3] contains some strong advice as a starting point.
  2. Find an activity that is yours. Reading. Exercise. Meditation. There is no right answer. Whatever it is, find time to clear your mind. It can be challenging to find times that work, and sometimes parents end up embracing very odd hours. Like many things, routine helps. Finding space on a day may be easy, but self-care makes an impact as you make it a habit.
  3. Consider a professional. Or at least professional strategies. Often it can be hard to take perspective on raising your child and its impacts on your life. Fortunately, mental health practitioners come well-armed with strategies for helping reframe challenges that have been clinically shown to help. The investment in time is well worth it if you can increase your mood and quality of life across the board.

No one can be a perfect parent. The challenges of raising a child get magnified when the child has a mental health challenge. We can forget that the rewards can be magnified just as much. For parents, the trick is to find strategies that can help them persevere through day to day challenges so they can see the rewards clearly.


[1] Schnabel, A., Youssef, G. J., Hallford, D. J., Hartley, E. J., McGillivray, J. A., Stewart, M., Forbes, D., & Austin, D. W. (2020). Psychopathology in parents of children with autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis of prevalence. Autism24(1), 26–40. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361319844636

[2] Cheung, K., Theule, J. Parental Psychopathology in Families of Children with ADHD: A Meta-analysis. J Child Fam Stud 25, 3451–3461 (2016). https://doi.org /10.1007/s10826-016-0499-1

[3] https://childmind.org/article/how-to-help-kids-sleep/

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