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How does a parent's mental health affect a child?

Effect of a parent's mental illness on the child?

A parent's mental illness can expose the child to so many health risks. Firstly, children of parents with mental disorder are at an increased risk of developing mental disorders themselves. Also, the kids may suffer neglect or abuse due to the parent's emotional instability. Such experiences can lead to behavioral, social, and emotional problems in the child.

But that's not all. New research shows that newborns are at risk of cognitive impairment if the mother suffers from a mental illness.

Babies of mentally ill moms are at risk of cognitive impairment

If someone were to ask, "Can an infant be mentally affected if the mother suffers from depression? You may instinctively think, "How could a child's brain be affected by their mom's? It doesn't sound rational. Yet, it is scientific.

New studies show that babies of mothers with mental illness are at risk of poor cognitive development.

This can be quite alarming for nursing mothers currently battling postpartum depresssion or some other mental health problems. They wouldn't want to be the cause of their baby's cognitive inefficiency.

Fortunately, the same research shows that little changes are enough to break the correlation and return the child to their optimal developmental level.

How does parent's mental illness affect the child?

For many women battling mental illness, the research showed that their babies' attentiveness and social skills were impaired.

To remove any form of environmental bias, the researchers studied refugee families in Turkey as well as regular families in safe environments in Bhutan and Sweden.

Uppsala Child and Baby Lab led the study, coordinated by Gustaf Gredebäck.

The scientists researched by interviewing the families and experimenting in Turkey, Sweden, and Bhutan. 120 families with 9-10 month-old babies participated in Sweden and Bhutan. One hundred more families who fled from Syria to Turkey also participated. Children aged between 6 and 18 also partook.

Across all the families with their varying backgrounds, the researchers discovered that the cognitive abilities of several children were affected by their mother's mental health, regardless of background.

However, it wasn't the child's intelligence that was compromised. Rather, their attentiveness, social skills, and decision-making were adversely affected.

What to do

According to the research, there are elements suggesting that social support can tremendously improve mothers' condition, which, in turn, reduces the impact of their mental health on the child. Having friends around and a supportive community are the two most important ways to achieve that.

Clearly, these are very simple things to do. Staying socially connected can help anyone, including mothers, to battle mental illnesses like depression.

"If you improve the mental health of mothers by four percent, the child wins an entire year of their cognitive development, in statistical terms," says Gustaf Gredebäck. "Small measures, in other words, can make a big difference in supporting the next generation."


All the backgrounds of the families studied have some positive and negative aspects. In Sweden, for example, there is gender equality, so fathers can easily take leaves to assist mothers in child care. But despite that, there are very limited social interactions and meeting places, an aspect in which the other countries thrive.

For instance, the active religious life in Bhutan brought families together often, thereby providing the social support mentally challenged mothers need.

The bottom line

One thing is clear: children of mentally ill mothers are at risk of health problems. Even anxiety in pregnant women can lead to preterm births, which can cause a whole lot of complications for the newborn. And there's also postpartum depression of which many pregnant women are at risk of. It will help if mental health practitioners are involved during antenatal care, so that pregnant women can be evaluated for mental illness. This can help prevent many issues for the mother and child later.

If you're a parent, you obviously care for your child. Why else would you want to know how your mental health affects your child? If you are currently battling any mental health issue as a parent with a young child, try to tap into your social connections. Also, reach out to an Advanced Practice Psychiatric Nurse near you for professional and long-lasting help for your mental issues.

Satu H. Woodland, PMHCNS-BC, APRN Satu H. Woodland, PMHCNS-BC, APRN Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Hope Mental Health, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. She sees children, adolescents, and adults.  Ms. Woodland with her background in nursing, prefers a holistic and integrative approach to mental health care that addresses the mind and body together. While Ms. Woodland provides medication management services in all her patients, she believes in long-lasting solutions that include a number of psychotherapies, namely cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure and response prevention therapy, attention to lifestyle, evidenced based alternative psychiatric care and spirituality. If you’d like to gain control over your mental health issues, call Hope Mental Health at 208-918-0958, or use the online scheduling tool to set up an initial consultation.

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