If you’re a parent living with a mental health condition, the way you interact with your child and how you care for yourself may be impacted.
Parenting is challenging, no matter what state of health you’re in.
Living with a mental health condition can affect your ability to be present with your child. But certain self-care practices may help you stay or become responsive, engaging, and attentive.
These key qualities help ensure your child develops a sense of safety, security, and a positive relationship with their environment.
In this article, mental health experts explain how mental health conditions can affect your parenting and what you can do to foster a strong, healthy parent-child relationship.
“Parenting is a tough job, and mental health challenges most importantly impact the quality of parenting,” says Emily Chinitz, PsyD, of New York, NY.
For example, if you live with depression, you may find it difficult to manage your fatigue with an excited child in the room.
Suppose you experienced trauma in childhood and are living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In that case, your child’s age-appropriate behavior may remind you of previous trauma, which may cause you to feel overwhelmed or hostile.
Karen Bridbord, PhD, of Karen Bridbord & Associates in Brooklyn, NY, states that “mental illness is a thief of a parent’s ability to be present, responsive, and engaged with their children.”
She also notes that being removed from the present can lead to inappropriate and sometimes neglectful parenting, like forgetting to buy food or have bath time.
Tim Dowling, LPC, of Apple Valley Behavioral Health in Plantsville, CT, explains the importance of modeling healthy behaviors and how mental health conditions can interfere.
“If your child is misbehaving and you’re struggling with a high level of anxiety, you can sometimes react in a way that may damage the relationship.” Indirectly, this can teach your child that this is how they should react.
Having difficulty managing your emotions as a parent can feel like excessive:
These emotions can lead to feelings of guilt and shame surrounding your ability to be an effective parent.
Recognize that what you’re feeling is valid and shared by many parents. Parenting is one of the world’s most stressful and difficult jobs, regardless of your mental health.
Your behavior as a parent influences how your child relates and interacts with others. In other words, your mental health will likely affect your child’s development.
Dr. Chinitz explains that children are deeply impacted by their environment — which consists mainly of their caregivers. “If you’re unavailable because of mental illness, it can impair your ability to be a sensitive and responsive parent, which is what develops a secure attachment.”
A secure attachment ensures that your child feels safe, loved, and understood throughout their development. According to Dr. Chinitz, “all of the research shows that a strong attachment to at least one parent buffers the impact of stressors in their lives.”
Though parents are important in their child’s development, the burden of ensuring that your child develops a secure attachment style doesn’t have to fall entirely on you.
According to the experts, these protective factors can benefit your child:
- support from school teachers and parent advocacy groups
- relationships with warm and loving neighbors, family members, and friends
- fun skills and hobbies that build your child’s pride and self-esteem
- parental warmth and positive reinforcement
- parental employment to ensure financial security
All of the experts we talked to agree that caring for yourself is crucial for sound parenting.
Whether it’s a 5-minute meditation session or cooking a nutritious meal, it’s important that you build some form of self-care into your daily routine.
1. Get regular exercise
Regular exercise doesn’t just benefit your body but also your mind.
“All of the research shows that exercise is essential for mental health,” says Dr. Bridbord.
Try to explore different types of exercise to find one that’s enjoyable and sustainable for you. For example, you can walk a few laps around the neighborhood, join a class, or hit the weights.
2. Eat nourishing foods
Although specific associations between food and mood are still under investigation, research is promising.
For example, it’s believed that eating certain foods — like walnuts and avocados — can improve mood-related chemicals like serotonin levels.
You can read about foods that can influence your mood here.
3. Prioritize sleep
Dr. Chinitz stresses the importance of quality sleep — it impacts everything about our wellness, especially mental health.
Parenting is a 24/7 job. Without restful nights of sleep, being attentive and patient toward your child is much more challenging.
Consider aiming for at least 7 hours of sleep per night to feel refreshed and ready to take on the day.
4. Seek community support
Sometimes, self-care means asking for help.
For example, you can chat with a trusted friend, support group, or mental health professional. There’s no shame in asking for help or trying to improve yourself.
“It really does take a village. Having support structures in place for both children and their parents creates more opportunities for secure attachments and shared healthy experiences,” says Dr. Bridbord.
In parenting, it’s important to encourage open communication.
Dowling expresses the importance of “openly processing your feelings.” By doing so, your children will be able to identify when they’re experiencing similar feelings.
Dr. Bridbord states that it’s helpful to be clear about how you’re feeling, provided that you do it in an age-appropriate way. “If you have to, get some support about how to express yourself in a way that your child can understand.”
“The research is overwhelming around the positive impacts of meditation. We know that brain structure changes to accommodate less reactivity and greater reflectivity,” says Dr. Bridbord.
Reflectivity allows you to move through moments with an improved sense of calm and without attachment to your thoughts.
Conveniently, meditation doesn’t have to take up a large chunk of your day. Dr. Bridbord emphasizes that meditating for just five minutes can be beneficial.
To give it a try, consider using a meditation app to get you started.
7. Pursue creative outlets
Dowling explains that activities like mindless eating, watching TV, or scrolling through your phone can be ways to unplug or detach from the present.
These actions can become unhealthy coping tools that distract you from acknowledging your feelings.
“We all need some type of creative outlet, like art, music, or journaling. It teaches emotional intelligence and helps us process our feelings,” says Dowling.
So, instead of unplugging, it may help to search for a creative passion or way of expressing yourself that you can practice regularly.
Parenting with a mental health condition can leave you feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, or out of touch with your own needs. It’s important to recognize that taking care of your children often begins with taking care of yourself.
You can take many steps to improve your mental health and parenting skills.
Remember that it takes more than just one or two people to raise a child; there’s no shame in asking for help.