Mental illnesses in parents represent a risk for children in the family. These children have a higher risk for developing mental illnesses than other children.

The risk is particularly strong when the parent’s illness is manic- depressive illness, schizophrenia, alcoholism or other drug abuse, or major depression. When both parents are mentally ill, the chance is even greater that the child might become mentally ill.

Risk can be inherited from parents, through the genes. Some of the risk also comes from parents’ behavior or moods. Mental disorders can keep parents from providing the love and guidance necessary for a child’s healthy development. An inconsistent, unpredictable family environment contributes to psychiatric illness in children. Mental illness can hurt the marriage and the parenting abilities of the couple, which in turn hurts the child.

Some protective or positive things can decrease the risk to children, including:

  • Children knowing their parents are ill and that the children are not to blame.
  • A stable home environment.
  • A sense of being loved by the ill parent.
  • A naturally stable and happy personality in the child.
  • Inner strength and good coping skills in the child.
  • A strong relationship with a healthy adult.
  • Friends.
  • Interest in and success at school.
  • Other outside interests for the child.
  • Help from outside the family to improve the family environment (for example, marital psychotherapy, or a class in parenting).

Medical, mental health or social service professionals working with mentally ill adults need to inquire about the children and adolescents, especially about their mental health and emotional development. It is often useful for such youngsters to be referred to a child and adolescent psychiatrist for an evaluation.

Individual or family psychiatric treatment can help a child toward healthy development despite the problem of the parental psychiatric illness. The child and adolescent psychiatrist can help the family work with the positive elements in the home and the natural strengths of the child. With Adult Mental Health Treatment, the family can learn ways to lessen the effects of the parent’s mental illness on the child.

Unfortunately, families, professionals and society often pay most attention to the mentally ill parent, and ignore the children in the family. Providing more attention and support to the children of a psychiatrically ill parent is an important way to help prevent mental illnesses from passing from one generation to the next.

Free distribution of single Factssheets is a public service made possible by the Academy Endowment Fund. This fund supports educational programs and materials designed to educate parents, families, teachers, caregivers, and others about the mental illnesses affecting nearly 12.5 million children and adolescents in an effort to de-stigmatize these illnesses, promote early identification and treatment, and encourage funding for scientifically based research.

Please make a tax deductible contribution to the Academy Endowment Fund and support this public outreach. (AACAP Endowment Fund – FFF, P.O. Box 96106, Washington, D.C. 20090)

Facts for Families © is developed and distributed by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Facts sheets may be reproduced for personal or educational use without written permission, but cannot be included in material presented for sale or profit. A complete set of over 60 Facts sheets covering issues facing children and adolescents is available for $18.00 ($15.00 plus $3.00 shipping and handling). Please make checks payable to: AACAP, and send requests to Public Information, P.O. Box 96106, Washington, D.C. 20090-6106.

Copyright © 1997 by the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

Presented with permission of the AACAP