Adult and child mental health are often closely intertwined in families. This article looks at the tough job of supporting your child when you have your own mental health concerns.
Perhaps your child has had poor mental health for a while?
Or maybe you want to prevent mental health issues developing and ensure your child has the best quality of life as they grow up.
Let’s look at how you can look after your own individual needs and support your child.
Your Mental Health Needs
As a clinical psychologist I strongly believe that taking care of our mental health is just as important as taking care of our physical health. First we will look at what good mental health actually is, and what it looks like in real life.
What is Good Mental Health and What Does it Look Like?
Good mental health is a state of emotional wellbeing in which someone can function well and cope with the normal stresses of life. It is not just the absence of a mental health disorder, but a state of positive mental health that includes feelings of happiness, contentment, and fulfilment. It also involves the ability to form positive relationships with others.
What good mental health looks like can vary from person to person, as we all have unique personalities, lifestyles, and circumstances. However, some common signs of good mental health may include:
- Positive emotions: People with good mental health tend to experience positive emotions such as happiness, contentment, and joy regularly. They can find pleasure and meaning in their daily activities and relationships.
- Resilience: Good mental health also involves the ability to bounce back from challenging situations and setbacks. People with good mental health are able to cope with stress and adversity in healthy and effective ways.
- Self-awareness: Good mental health involves being self-aware and having a clear understanding of one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This can help individuals to better manage their emotions and relationships with others.
- Positive relationships: People with good mental health tend to have positive and supportive relationships with others. They are able to communicate effectively, empathize with others, and form meaningful connections.
- Personal growth: Good mental health also involves personal growth and development. For example, adapting to changing circumstances and getting out of your comfort zone. Individuals with good mental health are open to new experiences and opportunities for learning and growth.
Looking after our mental health is a question of creating “micro habits” in everyday life, which will lead to happiness and flourishing rather than “surviving”. But don’t change everything at once. You’ll just get overwhelmed. Build one micro-habit at a time. For example, ring-fence ten minutes every morning to have a cup of tea and sit in silence
What Are Our Basic Mental Health Needs?
We need to eat healthily, exercise regularly, have some social connection, and get enough sleep. We also need to ring-fence some times for activities that bring us pleasure and relaxation. That might be reading, taking a bath or spending time outdoors, for example. We need time for our own identity as individuals, separate from our identity as parents.
Finally, it’s important to be aware of any mental health symptoms we may be experiencing and to seek help when needed. This might involve talk therapy from a mental health professional.
Adult and Child Mental Health: Co-Regulation Explained
As a clinical psychologist, I meet parents every day who are concerned about their children’s mental health. I always encourage parents to look after their own mental health so that they can best support their child’s. After all, as the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup.
When parents take care of their own mental health, they are better equipped to support their children’s mental health needs. Parents who are mentally healthy are more likely to be able to regulate their own emotions and respond calmly and effectively to their children’s needs.
For example, if a parent is feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or depressed, they may be more likely to become irritable or impatient with their child. This can create a negative cycle where the parent’s emotional state affects the child. The child then becomes upset or anxious, which in turn can influence the parent’s emotional state.
On the other hand, when you take steps to manage your own mental health, you are better able to regulate your emotions. This means you’re more likely to be able to respond calmly and supportively to your child’s needs. It can help to create a positive cycle where your emotional state positively influences the child’s emotional state, and vice versa.
Let’s look at what you can do in addition to looking after your own mental health needs, if you want to make sure your whole family is thriving.
1. Adult and Child Mental health: It’s Not About Perfection
You may feel that the role of parent requires perfection. You may feel you have failed if you are not happy and healthy at all times, and all members of your family are not the same way. This is far from the truth.
But it’s not about being perfect. In actual fact, if you try to be perfect and cover up your real-world problems, your child will develop a warped view of what they should aspire to be like. It’s healthier to be open and not give your child false expectations about real life. For example, if you use mental health services and you are open about your psychiatric care, you are giving a powerful message to your child that seeking help and accepting support for a mental health problem are normal and valuable.
Self-compassion is vital. Don’t compare yourself to other families who appear to have “perfect” mental health. First of all, you don’t know what they are dealing with behind closed doors. Second, you are in a different position to them, with different challenges, different needs.
2. Focus on Giving Your Child “Emotional Containment”
So, it’s okay to have struggles with your mental health and for your child to understand some of these struggles. Depending on their age though, you have to balance openness and realness with making sure they feel emotionally safe.
What do I mean by “emotionally safe”? I mean your child feels safe and secure at home, and they feel their emotions will be contained by you.
What is Emotional Containment?
Children – even in the teenage years – need to help to manage big, overwhelming emotions. Their brains are not mature enough to contain emotions like fear, frustration or anger.
The prefrontal cortex is the thinking part of the brain. In adults, there is a strong connection between the emotion centre (the limbic system) of the brain and the prefrontal cortex. When we have a strong emotion, the two areas of the brain talk to one another. The limbic system might say, “oh my God, this is a terrifying system and I can’t cope”. The prefrontal cortex can calm the limbic system: “It’s okay, you’ve got family support, and you’ve coped with much bigger things before, try not to worry.”
Okay, the explanation above is a bit simplistic, but hopefully you get the idea. An adult brain has the ability to regulate big emotions. A child’s brain doesn’t have strong connections between the limbic system and prefrontal cortex yet. So children need another person to co-regulate them. Teenagers may be able to regulate themselves some of the time, but with bigger emotions they will still need some help?
Ideas For co-Regulating Your Child’s Emotions
But what does co-regulation look like? It’s different for every child and depends on their age and stage of development but it might be:
- Deep hugs to soothe the nervous system.
- Listening calmly and without judgement when your child shares their emotion.
- Sitting silently next to your child while they are upset, in quiet solidarity.
- Naming their emotion for them and empathising without escalating the emotion. For example: “What you described sounds so frustrating. I would feel the same way if I had experienced that.”
- Using my “circles of control” printable worksheets to identify the areas of your child’s life where they feel most in control. Complete the circles of control for yourself too.
- Helping them “get into their body”. What I mean by this, is if they are caught up in big thoughts and feelings in their mind, take them back to what they are experiencing in their body to calm the emotion. You could:
- Take them on a brisk walk or jog.
- Sit outside with them and do a few minutes of mindful listening, or do some mindful walking.
- Give them a head massage (only if they are comfortable with this).
- Run them a hot shower or bath with scented oils.
However your child likes you to co-regulate them, you need to have agreed and planned what you’re going to do in advance.
Where Do You Get Emotional Support?
Who do you get your emotional support from? Do they co-regulate you? In other words, do they help contain your big emotions? This could be:
- A parent, sibling or another adult family member.
- A friend.
- A mental health professional such as your therapist
- A combination of the above.
It shouldn’t be a child. Children’s under-developed brains have enough to cope with managing their own feelings. Often, children take on adult worries, but this is not a safe or containing experience for them. This may have happened unwittingly in your family and it’s not your fault, but you should try to redress the balance so that the children feel emotionally contained.
If you don’t have any adult in your life who can provide emotional support and safety for you, then you need to try to find this support, for your sake and for your child’s. If you don’t feel safe, then your child will not feel safe either. You are their anchor.
Perhaps you have a spouse or partner who provides that sense of safety for your child but for whatever reason does not / cannot provide this for you. If there are no other family members of friends you can turn to for support, start thinking about where you can get this. Could you work on a closer bond with a particular friend? Or visit your doctor to find out about emotional support options in your area.
Lifestyle and Mental Health
Next let’s think about working towards a healthy lifestyle for both you and your child. A healthy lifestyle is the cornerstone of both adult and child mental health. The great news is you don’t need to do anything drastic. Just try little changes, one at a time.
You can be a role model for your child. That means developing a healthy lifestyle strategy.
I have written an article all about lifestyle and mental health and I recommend you read this before you make a plan.
The best way to approach developing a healthy lifestyle for adult and child mental health is to break it down into four areas:
- Social connection
- Exercise and movement
Make sure you create some social connections. This might be joining a club or just chatting with other parents at the school gate. Research shows that people who feel socially connected to others better mental health, and higher self-worth.
Work on getting enough sleep (quantity). But quality of sleep is also vital. It is often overlooked. For example, blue light from electronic devices, or drinking coffee in the evenings, can both disrupt healthy sleep.
You need to go through several healthy sleep cycles of light, deep (slow wave) and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep every night. Each phase of sleep serves a different purpose. Your brain needs to successfully process and store the events of the day. It needs to clear out toxins. It needs to rest and recuperate. Your body needs this too.
How do you know if you are not getting enough sleep? It’s simple. If you regularly wake up feeling exhausted and unrefreshed, you are not getting enough good quality sleep.
This article on Sleep Problems in Children will help you.
If you are concerned that poor sleep is impacting your child’s mood and mental health, consider my online course:
What you eat massively affects your mood. A varied and healthy diet is essential for adult and child mental health.
For example, a recent review of research studies found that eating highly processed food is associated with increased symptoms of anxiety and depression. One reason for this is that the refined sugar and “bad fats” in foods are thought to increase inflammation in the body. Inflammaton is connected with poor mental health.
It’s not just the fats and sugars in processed foods that are the problem. In general processed foods are much less nutrient-rich than fresh, whole foods. So if you eat more processed foods, you get less opportunity to take in the nutrients you need for a healthy brain and body.
It is beyond the scope of this article to go into depth about all nutrients needed for a healthy brain and positive mental health. However, here are a few pointers:
- Foods that release energy slowly such as protein and complex carbohydrates will regulate your blood sugar. Stable blood sugar levels mean better regulated mood. For instance, choose porridge with a spoonful of ground almonds rather than a sugary breakfast cereal.
- Your gut and brain are closely linked. Many of the brain’s neurochemicals are created in the gut. A healthy gut leads to a better mental health. Feed your gut with foods that help the “good” gut bacteria thrive, such as green leafy vegetables, fruit, legumes and beans. Read about the gut and mental health in more depth in this article from the American Psychological Association on the brain-gut connection.
- Although saturated fats are bad for your mental health, “good fats” support positive mental health and cognitive function. Omega 3 essential fatty acids are greatly needed in the brain and crucial for brain health. Foods high in omega 3 include chia seeds, flax seeds and hemp seeds, all of which could be added to a smoothie.
- Magnesium is an essential nutrient. Research shows it may improve mental health through calming the nervous system. It appears to reduce stress and acts as a natural antidote to anxiety. Sources of magnesium include leafy greens, avocado, nuts and seeds. Read more about magnesium and anxiety in this article from Healthline.
This excellent video from mental health charity, Mind, gives you 8 great tips to manage your mood with food.
What tiny tweaks could you make? Here are some ideas:
- Plan and cook a home-cooked meal once a week.
- Choose one day per week when you will “eat the rainbow” as a family. Plan a lunch a dinner that use as many colourful vegetables as possible.
- Invest in a blender and make smoothies for the whole family. Aim for once a week.
If you are interested in reading more in-depth about the links between food and mood, have a look at this recent article in the British Medical Journal.
Exercise and Movement
Adult and child mental health are both fundamentally affected by the amount of exercise we do. Exercise produces mood enhancing brain chemicals including dopamine and serotonin. You may also have heard about feel-good chemicals called endorphins which make us feel great during and after exercise. You can read more about exercise and mental health by reading this article from the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
If you have ever sprinted, cycled or swum fast lengths, you will know that wonderful feeling of happy contentment and calm when you stop at rest afterwards. It’s unbeatable. But general movement, too, is great for your mood. Movement – especially rhythmic movement such as dance, swinging or walking – helps regulate and calm the brain stem. This is incredibly soothing if you have been in a heightened state of arousal (for example, feeling very anxious). Read more about brain stem calming movements in this brilliant guide from Beacon House.
So, as a family, what types of exercise and movement do you already do? What can you do a little more of? Could you schedule in a regular family activity involving exercise once a week or once a fortnight? This might be a walk or a family swim session. Remember, great adult and child mental health is about small consistent lifestyle changes, not drastic and unsustainable ones.
How and When To Get Professional Help
In the UK, NHS children’s mental health and adult mental health services can be very different. Both tend to have long waiting lists. Depending on the severity of your child’s unique needs and their age, your child’s experience of mental health services may vary greatly.
Adult Mental Health Services
Adult services tend to be one-on-one, with little family involvement. You may first of all be put on a pathway for milder mental health problems and you may see a CBT therapist or mental health worker rather than a psychologist, psychiatrist or psychotherapist. If you have a more serious mental illness or you have already tried the first route without success, you may enter the pathway for complex care support. This may involve both therapy and medication. You are more likely to meet with senior professionals such as a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist.
If you would like to receive support but you don’t know where to start, speak to your GP (general practitioner) and ask for a referral. If you can self-fund or you have medical insurance, you can also seek private support. For example, you can find a list of qualified clinical psychologists in your area through the British Psychological Society’s directory.
Children’s Mental Health Services
You can seek a referral for your child through your primary care provider / GP or through their school. In some area, you can self-refer to mental health services for children and young people (CAMHS).
In children’s services you may meet just one professional, or your child may receive care from a whole team of mental health professional (and non-professional) staff. This may include child psychiatry, clinical psychologists, specialist nurses or non-qualified mental health workers. If a team is involved, your child will have a case manager who co-ordinates their care.
Child mental health care often involves you are parents in your child’s care. Unless your child is an older teen and has withdrawn consent for you to be involved, you will usually play a key role in the treatment plan. You should try to be as open as possible about your own mental health conditions. This will mean that the team can ensure you also get any extra support you need.
Children’s Social Care
Sometimes, social care (also known as social services) and social workers can also be involved. They tend to work closely with your child’s mental health team. Many parents feel scared or daunted at the idea of having social workers involved in their family, but actually, my experience is that most families find their help incredibly valuable and nothing to be scared of.
You may be referred to social care if your child is engaging in behaviour that is risky to themselves or others such as substance abuse, or if, as a family, you are in crisis and don’t feel you can keep everybody safe. In the first instance you may get referred to an “early help” tier of social care. This might involve parenting support either one-to-one or in a group, or 1-1 sessions with your child to support them to stay safe.
Again, if you can self-fund or if you have family medical insurance you can find private therapeutic support for your child. For more information about different professionals and how to find the right person, read our article on Child Therapist Information For Parents.
Here are two case examples to give you an idea of the service you may be offered to support your child’s mental health.
Lily is a nine year old girl. She has always been anxious but in the last six months she has developed signs of OCD.
Lily has become concerned about germs in the last 3 months. She doesn’t want her possessions to touch anything she feels is “dirty” including school desks. She doesn’t like to touch surfaces in public places. Lily washed her hands for an extended period (at least 5 minutes) whenever she feels she has touched a dirty surface. This has begun to have a significant impact on school life and family life.
Lily’s mum Angela is a single mum. She suffers from anxiety herself and tries to support Lily by giving her lots of understanding and time.
Lily was referred to CAMHS by her school. She was invited to CAMHS for a psychological evaluation with her mum. She met a cognitive behavioural therapist and was offered 6 CBT sessions, as CBT is one of an evidence-based treatment for anxiety disorders. This was later increased to 12 sessions. The therapist explained that with young children, parents play a key role in recovery. So in addition to face-to-face therapy, the therapist also made a weekly phone call to Angela. This call helped Angela understand how to apply the CBT techniques at home.
After 12 sessions Lily felt much more in control of her OCD. Her handwashing was reduced to 1 minute and she could tolerate touching “dirty” surfaces without washing her hands immediately afterwards. She was discharged from CAMHS.
Ben is sixteen. He has had symptoms of depression for two years but the symptoms were not severe enough to merit seeking professional help. As the stress of GCSEs approached Ben started feeling suicidal. Life seemed overwhelming to him.
Both Ben’s parents, Grant and Michelle, suffer from depression and take anti-depressant medication.
As Ben was suicidal, he was first offered an appointment in adolescent psychiatry in the CAMHS team. Psychiatrists help assess and manage risk, and they can prescribe medications. In Ben’s case, he was precribed an SSRI antidepressant medication.
Young adults have a say in how much involvement their parents have in their care. In Ben’s case, he was happy for his mum and dad to be fully involved. Ben was offered individual therapy with a clinical psychologist. Clinical psychologists are trained to offer a range of evidence-based therapies that can be tailored to a young person’s needs. Ben’s therapy was compassion-focused therapy integrated with CBT. Both compassion-focused therapy and CBT are widely used in adults and young adults with mood disorders.
Ben’s family was also offered family therapy once a month to help them understand some of the unhealthy patterns they had found themselves in.
Ben’s mental health quickly improved as a result of the combination of drug treatment and talking therapy. The family continued to receive support from the team for 9 months, although Ben was no longer feeling suicidal. After 9 months, the family no longer needed help and Ben was discharged.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. She is a mum to two teenage children.
Are you the parent of a 6-16 year-old? Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips on supporting teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.