When one member of a family has a mental health issue it has a significant impact on the entire family unit. Each family member may be affected differently, from parents who might feel guilt, helplessness or frustration, to siblings who might experience feelings of resentment, anxiety, confusion or isolation.
A child’s mental health symptoms are behaviours that may relate to a developmental stage or anxiety around external issues such as problems with peers or issues at school. It is important to remember that as parents, you are the expert of your child and if you notice something isn’t right it is best to seek help as early as possible.
As soon as you can, seek a professional opinion for behaviours that concern you. As soon as a mental illness is identified you can seek support and treatment for the child, potentially preventing the risk of a mental illness becoming a long-term disorder if it remains undiagnosed and untreated.
How does mental illness affect families?
Having a child with a mental health issue is stressful and disruptive for everyone in the family unit.
Naturally a parent’s focus will be on the child with a mental illness, but every family member is affected when one child needs specialised care and mental health support.
When a sibling has mental health issues, other children in the family may experience high levels of stress and anxiety as a result. As more demands are made on their parents’ time, they might feel excluded, increasingly anxious, and sometimes jealous or resentful of their sibling. Siblings of children with a mental illness are often at risk of developing mental health issues if their supportive family structure breaks down.
If the children are young, they may not understand what is happening to their brother or sister and be quite stressed by what is occurring. Older siblings and teens sometimes experience feelings of guilt if they take parental time and attention away from the mentally unwell sibling, and so they become uncommunicative, cease interacting with the family and don’t verbalise their needs.
This means parents are needing to work extra hard to maintain a strong family unit to minimise the risk of emotional disturbance to other siblings when a child with a mental illness requires significantly time and attention than the others.
Support for families experiencing mental illness
A strong support system is crucial for the family unit to remain healthy and intact.
In order to keep the family unit strong, parents should seek support for themselves, the child experiencing a mental illness, and that child’s siblings. Support can come from many sources, including health professionals such as GPs, psychologists or psychiatrists, family therapists, school communities, supportive friends and understanding family members.
It may help to:
- Prioritise your own emotional wellbeing as a parent, and seek support for yourself from health professionals as well as friends and family. Caring for a child with mental illness can be draining; you need to care for yourself too.
- Keep the family communication lines open. Sit down and talk about it together, so that all family members understand what the child with a mental health issue is experiencing and why. Encourage siblings to talk about how they are feeling and how they are impacted by a mental health issue in the family.
- If the children are old enough it may help to have a family discussion around strategies to deal with any challenging situations that arise. Family therapists can assist families with working through challenging situations and establishing helpful strategies to address them.
- Seek support from healthcare professionals for understanding, diagnosis, treatment, support and management for the child with a mental health issue. Also seek professional support for siblings who might benefit from talking about their experience with an independent health professional outside of the family unit.
- Keep caring and understanding friends and family updated, and seek their support whenever you or your child’s siblings need it.
Keep family ties strong with family therapy
At Relational Minds the team of psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, clinicians and mental health nurses deliver a wide range of professional services to support families experiencing a mental health issue.
A team-based approach with expert input from mental health professionals can help you to ensure all members of your family are supported and their emotional wellbeing is prioritised.
Reach out if you have a mental health issue in your family, we will work with you to keep your family ties strong and ensure the mental health and emotional wellbeing of all family members is cared for.