Parenthood and mental health

Caring for children can also create challenges for parents, particularly if they lack resources and support, which in turn, can result in an adverse impact on a parent’s mental health.

Nov 18, 2022

                                    Heart, Mind and Soul Fr Philip Chua

Recent shifts in social and economic factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic, have had a significant impact on family functioning and well-being. We are witnessing, in this day and age, marriages becoming less common and across most countries, particularly developed nations, people marrying later in life. This has contributed to declining birth rates globally as the complex inter-relationship between the institution of marriage and the institution of family continues to evolve. Perhaps taking that leap into parenthood for some married couples is no longer viewed as an exciting and essential phase of marriage but a decision that often comes with its fair share of challenges and additional responsibilities.

Our identity as an individual is deeply connected to the people that we spend our time most with. And for many of us, these people would be our family members. Blood, is after all, thicker than water. For better or worse, they have a tremendous influence on our personality, beliefs, values and even our mental health. This is why family relationships play such a pivotal role in defining our lives and often, the impact that a family has on oneself can be very evident, for example, a person shaped by abusive parents vis-à-vis someone nurtured from a healthy parental relationship. The difference, I assure you, is stark. I have personally witnessed in my capacity as a counsellor, the crucial role that one’s childhood and the relationship that one has with his or her parents, play in shaping a person’s character and ultimately, life.

It is undeniable that the mental health of parents and their children is connected in multiple ways. When families are strong and stable, so are the children. Mentally healthy children are more likely to have a positive quality of life and are more likely to function well at home, in school, and in their communities. Parents who have their own mental health challenges, such as coping with symptoms of depression or anxiety are more likely to encounter difficulty in providing care for their child compared to parents who do not.

Caring for children can also create challenges for parents, particularly if they lack resources and support, which in turn, can result in an adverse impact on a parent’s mental health. However, it is important that we recognise that just because a parent has a mental health condition does not necessarily translate into problems for the children. Instead, what is more crucial is the manner in which a parent’s mental health affects the children’s behaviour.

Dealing with depression as a parent could inadvertently impact how you interact with your child. For example, you may not be as expressive or able to form an emotional connection, thereby impacting the bond between parent and child. This may, in turn, lead to stressful situations for parent and child and can weaken a relationship, leading to abandonment issues or problems with trust. This is the key reason why I strongly advocate for early intervention in managing mental health related issues. When it comes to addressing mental health challenges, it is never too early or too late.

A parent-child relationship characterised by emotional or physical abuse can result in severe mental health problems which require lifelong management. Children who grow up in a toxic family environment tend to become emotionally detached, have difficulty maintaining healthy relationships, encounter attachment issues, suffer from anxiety and may even develop severe mental health issues. Whilst we recognise that family problems and disputes are inevitable, unresolved family issues which can develop into deep-seated problems which may in turn impact the mental health of both the children and parents.

Making children feel unwanted, constantly rejecting their opinions, teasing or bullying them, criticising them, shouting and showing hostility can cause a child to feel extremely uncomfortable in their own home and environment leading to a deterioration of a child’s mental well-being and self-esteem. A child will develop a greater tendency to become a recluse and live in a constant state of fear when they are exposed to an environment in which their own parents keep reminding them that they are worthless, unloved or simply “not good enough”. Unfortunately, emotional and psychological abuse is often unidentifiable and not clearly visible, especially in a parent-child relationship. However, the impact is indelible and would typically persist into adulthood.

When it comes to nurturing a family environment that is conducive for mental health, parents can take some simple but effective steps:

1. Help children build strong and caring relationships by spending more time with them and show them how to solve problems.

2. Help children build self-esteem so that they feel good about themselves by showing them love and acceptance as well as recognising their efforts and achievements.

3. Listen and respect children’s feelings by letting them know that it is acceptable to sometimes feel sad or angry, and keeping the communication channel between parent and child open.

4. Create a safe and positive home environment by providing time for family activities or simply by being a role model by taking care of your own mental health.

On the flip side, it is understandable that it can be difficult to seek help as a parent when you are struggling with mental health issues. You might worry about being judged or be seen as weak, the very anti-thesis of what an ideal parent should be. Try not to put pressure on yourself to be the ‘perfect parent’ as no one is. Forget not that all parents fall into hard times and there is no shame in acknowledging that we need extra support from time to time.

(Fr Philip Chua is a registered & licensed Counselor and Clinical Supervisor under Lembaga Kaunselor Malaysia. He is also the Ecclesiastical Assistant for the Archdiocesan Mental Health Ministry)

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