The interlink between parent-child mental health

Parenting can be a pretty challenging journey. Rewarding – of course, but also labour intensive and unpredictable at times.

This article is for those parents who may be getting an inkling that their own anxiety (or mental health in general) is beginning to have an effect on their children.

We will cover

  • Why parent-child mental health is so interlinked.
  • Questions to ask yourself and check in on our own mental health.
  • Habits you can put in place to support your own mental health and child's'.

Why is parent-child mental health so interlinked?

It’s natural for children to look to their parents and the world around them for an indication of whether something is safe or not. You need only watch a child become brave watching their friends do something, or conversely - become scared if their friends seem scared.

So it follows that they’ll look to those they trust the most to know if something is safe. A child is much more likely to develop a strong fear of dogs, for example – if one or other parent has a dog phobia.

But broader than this, parental mental health has a multifaceted effect on children.

  • A parent’s mental health profoundly influences their ability to provide a stable and nurturing environment for their children. When parents are mentally healthy, they are better equipped to respond to their child’s needs, provide emotional support, and model healthy behaviors.

  • Children are highly attuned to their parents’ emotions. If a parent is experiencing mental health challenges, such as anxiety or depression, children are likely to pick up on these feelings. This can lead to children feeling anxious, stressed, or confused themselves, even if they don’t fully understand the source of their unease.

  • Parent’s mental health can impact the quality of the bond they share with their child. Mental health challenges can sometimes lead to irritability, mood swings, or withdrawal, which can strain the parent-child relationship. Being aware of one’s mental health can help parents seek support and maintain a healthy connection with their child.

  • Parents serve as role models for their children. When parents prioritise their mental health, they demonstrate the importance of self-care and seeking help when needed. This sets a valuable example for children, teaching them to value their own mental well-being and seek help when facing challenges.

Some questions to ask yourself about your own anxiety/mental health in general:

  • What are my thinking styles like? Do I expect the worst, catastrophise and/or critique myself and others constantly?

  • What do I do when I’m stressed/angry/anxious?

  • What (healthy and unhealthy) coping mechanisms am I modelling? (Even just for everyday stress)

  • Have there been any significant life changes or events that might be impacting my mental health?

  • Do I have a support system in place, such as friends, family, or a therapist, with whom I can discuss my feelings?

  • Has my family ever expressed concern about my mental health?

  • Have I lost interest or pleasure in activities I used to enjoy?

  • Do I frequently feel sad or down without a clear reason?

  • Am I isolating myself from friends and family more than usual?

  • Have I noticed physical symptoms like headaches or muscle tension that may be related to stress?

  • Do my children ask me why I act a certain way?

  • When we talk about emotions as a family, do we do it in an open and non-judging way?

If you have answered the questions above and have a feeling that perhaps there are some habits that need changing/things to feel concerned about, here are some ideas:

1. Self-awareness is a great first step

Recognising your own mental state/that your anxiety is affecting your child is the first step towards positive change. Pay attention to how your child reacts to your anxiety. They may become more anxious themselves, exhibit behavioural issues, or withdraw from social activities.

Acknowledging the problem is essential before you can take action. Check in with yourself regularly and ask yourself if you’ve noticed any changes in yourself – in mood, behaviour, sleeping/eating habits etc.

2. Talk to someone

Anxiety can be a complex issue, and it can be useful to get some professional help if you’re struggling to manage it.

A psychologist or other therapist can provide valuable strategies for coping with anxiety and help you understand its root causes. Remember that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Even starting with a friend or family member is a great first step.

3. Practice self-care

Parenting (and life in general!) can be all-consuming, but it’s essential to prioritise self-care.

When you take care of your mental and physical well-being, you’re better equipped to provide a stable and nurturing environment for your child. This can include regular exercise, adequate sleep, and hobbies that bring you joy.

4. Communication is key

Open and honest communication with your child is crucial. Depending on their age, explain your anxiety in a way they can understand. Let them know it’s not their fault and reassure them that you are taking steps to manage it.

Encourage them to express their feelings and concerns as well. Discussing things openly as a family also helps model sharing, so your children know it’s safe to come to you with their own thoughts and fears.

     5. Develop coping strategies

Work and develop some healthy coping strategies for dealing with anxiety. These strategies may include things like mindfulness meditation, breathing exercises, or cognitive-behavioural techniques.

Modelling these techniques for your child can be a powerful way to teach them to manage their own emotions.

6. Establish routines that will be there even if you aren’t doing well

We all know children thrive on routines and predictability. Create a structured daily routine, and include the fun stuff too – family time, relaxation, and don’t forget some silliness.

A stable routine can provide a sense of security for both you and your child, and some light-hearted fun will help them feel that all is well.

7. Limit exposure to stressors if possible

Easier said than done maybe! But are there things causing a disproportionate amount of stress in your life? This might involve setting boundaries with work, simplifying your schedule, or seeking support from friends and family.

A less stressful environment at home can benefit both you and your child.

8. Lean on your support network instead of your child 

It’s common for parents to treat their children like friends, but the research shows that many children can feel burdened, especially if there is very little they can do to help. Avoid oversharing your specific worries with your child – instead, build and lean on a support network.

This also means you can model asking for help, which is an amazing skill for a child to have.

9. Check in with yourself – and your children - regularly

Track your progress in managing anxiety, your own wellbeing, and that of your children. Reflect on what’s working and what isn’t, and don’t be afraid to make changes.

As a parent, your well-being directly affects your child’s happiness and development. With the right awareness and a plan, you can create a healthier environment for both you and your child, fostering their emotional well-being and resilience, whilst also your own.


About the Author

Nadine Isler

Nadine Isler is a Registered Psychologist who specialises in treating anxiety and related conditions. She finds the human brain fascinating and loves working with people from all walks of life. She was born in Switzerland and is now based in Auckland and has two children.