Children of Parents with Mental Ill Health


In May 2021, links in Section 6, Further Information were updated.

1. Introduction

Mental ill health difficulties are proportionately common in the overall population, the term does not in itself have one clear definition, and therefore the existence of mental illness should not be taken as a risk factor without contextual information.

Parental mental illness does not necessarily have an adverse impact on a child's developmental needs, but it is essential to always assess its implications for each child within the family. Professionals from both Children's Services and Adult Mental Health Services must share information and work jointly in any assessments undertaken to ensure that everyone is working in partnership with the children and the parents/carers.

The state of a person's mental illness is usually not static and can vary according to several factors, correspondingly their capacity to parent safely may also be variable, and therefore, an understanding of the factors which may increase risk is an important part of any assessment.

Many adults who suffer from mental ill health also have substance misuse issues, which is described as Dual Diagnosis and there may be several agencies and services, for both adults and children, who are working with the family.

National Serious Case Reviews and Domestic Homicide Reviews have identified domestic abuse, parental mental ill health and drug and alcohol misuse as significant factors in families where children have died or been seriously harmed. Where all three concerns are present they have been described as the 'toxic trio' or ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences), which practitioners should be alert to and consider in any assessments.

2. Risks

The majority of parents who suffer significant mental ill health are able to care for and safeguard their child(ren) and/or unborn child, but it is essential always to assess the implications for each child in the family.

Practitioners must also take into consideration that the absence of a formal diagnosis does not mean there is an absence of risk.

A child who has suffered, or is likely to suffer Significant Harm or whose well-being is affected by parental mental illness could be a child:

  • Previous history of parental mental illness especially if severe and/or enduring condition;
  • Predisposition to, or severe post-natal illness;
  • Parental non-compliance with treatment, reluctance or difficulty in engaging with necessary services, lack of insight into illness or impact on child;
  • Mental illness combined with domestic abuse;
  • Who features within parental delusions or suicide plan;
  • Who is involved in his / her parent's obsessional compulsive behaviours;
  • Who becomes a target for parental aggression or rejection;
  • Who has caring responsibilities inappropriate to his / her age and should be assessed as a young carer;
  • Who may witness disturbing behaviour arising from the mental illness;
  • Who is neglected physically and / or emotionally by an unwell parent;
  • Who does not live with the unwell parent, but has contact (e.g. formal unsupervised contact sessions or the parent sees the child in visits to the home or on overnight stays);
  • Who is at risk of severe injury, profound neglect or death;
  • Who is an unborn child of a pregnant woman with any previous major mental illness.

3. Indicators

To determine how a parent/carer's mental illness may impact on their parenting ability and the child's development the following questions need to be considered within an assessment:

  • Does the child take on roles and responsibilities within the home that are inappropriate?
  • Does the parent/carer neglect their own and their child's physical and emotional needs?
  • Does the parent's mental illness affect the development of a secure attachment with the child?
  • Does the mental ill health result in chaotic structures within the home with regard to meal and bedtimes, etc?
  • Does the parent/carer's mental illness have implications for the child within school, attending health appointments etc?
  • Is there a lack of the recognition of safety for the child?
  • Does the parent/carer have an appropriate understanding of their mental illness and its impact on their parenting capacity and on their child?
  • Does parent / carer's needs or illnesses taking precedence over the child's needs?
  • Are there repeated incidents of hospitalisation for the parent/carer or other occasions of separation from the child?
  • Does the parent/carer misuse alcohol or other substances?
  • Does the parent/carer feel the child is responsible in some way for their mental health problem?
  • Is the child included within any delusions of the parent/carer?
  • Does the parent/carer's mental illness result in them rejecting or being unavailable to the child?
  • Does the child witness acts of violence or is the child subject to violence?
  • Does the wider family understand the mental illness of the parent/carer, and the impact of this on the parent/carer's ability to meet the child's needs?
  • Is the wider family able and willing to support the parent so that the child's needs are met?
  • Does culture, ethnicity, religion or any other factor relating to the family have implications on their understanding of mental illness and the potential impact on the child?
  • How the family functions, including conflict, potential family break up etc;
  • Has there been an impact observed on the child's growth, development, behaviour and/or mental / physical health, including alcohol/substance misuse and self- harming behaviour?

4. Protection and Action to be Taken

Where it is believed that a child of a parent with mental ill health may have suffered, or is likely to suffer significant harm, a referral to Children's social care should be made in accordance with the Referral, Investigation and Assessment Procedures. If there are concerns, it may be the case that the child and family will find early help services supportive and an assessment of the needs of the child should take place at an early stage for example by an Early Help Assessment (EHA) taking place.

It is essential that staff working in adult mental health services and Children's social care work together collaboratively to ensure the safety of the child and management of the adult's mental ill health.

Joint work will include mental health workers providing all information with regard to:
  • Treatment plans;
  • Likely duration of any mental ill health;
  • Effects of any mental ill health and medication on the carer's general functioning and parenting ability.

Children's social care must assess the individual needs of each child and within this incorporate information provided by mental health workers.

Mental health professionals should be invited to and must attend to provide information to any meeting concerning the implications of the parent/carer's mental ill health on the child including Child Protection Conferences and Child in Need meetings. Children's social care professionals should be invited to and must attend Care Programme Approach (CPA) and other meetings related to the management of the parent's ill mental health. The Adult Mental Health professionals must ensure that priority is given to attending and participating in Strategy Discussions and Child Protection Conferences.

All plans for a child including Child Protection Plans and Child in Need Plans will identify the roles and responsibilities of mental health and other professionals. The plan will also identify the process of communication and liaison between professionals. All professionals should work in accordance with their own agency procedures / guidelines and seek advice and guidance from line management or the organisation safeguarding lead, when necessary.

Where there are child welfare concerns regarding visits to patient a joint assessment should be undertaken to establish whether it is in the best interests of a child to visit their parent or family member in a psychiatric hospital.

Adult and child mental health professionals, children's social workers, health visitors and midwives, school nurses and education services must share information in order to be able to assess risks.

Discharge planning arrangements and any associated meetings about parents who have mental ill health difficulties must include consideration of any needs or risk factors for the children concerned. Children's Services along with other relevant agencies should be involved in planning discharge arrangements by Adult Mental Health Services professionals.

5. Issues

Contingency Planning. Child care and mental health professionals should always consider the future management of a change in circumstances for a parent/carer and the child and how concerns will be identified and communicated.

If a parent/carer disengages from mental health services, or is non-compliant with Treatment and the professional judgment is that there is on-going risk to the child in these circumstances, this should be referred to Children's social care.

Professionals need to consider carefully the implications for children when closing their involvement with parents with a mental illness. Consideration should be given to informing the appropriate Children's social care team in order that the implications for the child are assessed.

Mental health services should always use 'respectful uncertainty' and not readily accept parent / carer's assertions that their mental illness are not affecting the care they provide to their children. Where there is any doubt in these situations, services should always err on the side of caution.

Confidentiality is important in developing trust between parents with mental ill health and practitioners in agencies working with them, however, practitioners must always act in the best interest of the child and not prioritise their therapeutic relationship with the adult.