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Parental Mental Illness (PMI) and Child Outcomes

A parent’s mental health condition—including depression, low self-esteem, poor impulse control, anxiety and antisocial behavior—has been shown to:

    • Affect attachment formation and the cognitive, emotional, social and behavioral development of children
    • Compromise parenting and be a risk factor for child maltreatment, including abuse and neglect
    • Increase risk for psychiatric disorders developing in childhood, adolescence and adult life 

A recent study asked primary caregivers to report on their child’s mental and physical health as well as their own mental health. Results indicated 1 in 14 children ages 0–17 had a parent who reported poor mental health, and those children were more likely to have:

    • Poor general health 
    • Mental, emotional or developmental disability
    • Adverse childhood experiences (exposure to violence or family disruptions, such as divorce) 
    • Life in poverty

The impact of parental mental health on the lives of children can be either direct or indirect.

Direct impacts include:

    • Inherited genetic make-up 
    • Perinatal exposure to anxiety/depression
    • Exposure to parental mental illness itself 

Indirect impacts include:

    • Socioeconomic disadvantage 
    • Marital conflict

Despite evidence that preventive support for caregiver health and emotional wellbeing is key to optimal child development, there remains little support for parent/caregiver emotional wellbeing, especially in resource-constrained circumstances. 

Two studies conclude the importance that not just children benefit from early intervention, but caregivers can also benefit through improved mental health outcomes:

Research has attempted to understand how best to support families, but mostly looks at the unwell parent. It has neglected the experience of other children in the family and has not sufficiently examined taking an integrative approach—looking at the experiences of the whole family—crucial to understanding the experience of PMI and for outcomes and recovery. 

Other research shows when early childhood interventions are directed at caregivers—by providing information on positive caregiving practices or by otherwise supporting parental wellbeing—outcomes improve for children. These interventions may provide even greater success by supporting the whole family. 

Learn more about the Parenthood Center at CFI…


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