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Practical tips for working with families

In this article, Dr Alan Cooklin highlights the ways in which we can work with families living with parental mental illness.

Here are some practical tips for professionals and how you can help children affected by parental mental illness.

This article is adapted from: ‘Building Children’s Resilience in the Face of Parental Mental Illness; Conversations with Children, Parents, and Professionals’, (2021), edited by Dr Alan Cooklin and Gill Gorrell Barnes.

Let’s explore how professionals can help support children whose parents have a mental illness. Learners will gain tips from renowned child expert, consultant family psychiatrist, Dr Alan Cooklin.

Can I make a difference?

Millions of children worldwide live with parents with mental health issues. As a professional, such as a teacher, nurse, doctor, social worker, or youth worker, you will inevitably encounter these children. You might worry that you do not have the know-how to help. Especially as training on this topic is rarely included in any curriculum.

We know from our experience working with families that just a small investment of your time can go a long way.

What role can I play?

Children of parents with mental illness are commonly seen as the responsibility of some ‘other’ agency. There is no one professional group that has responsibility for them.

Because of the stigma around mental illness, these children often keep their problems to themselves. Unless professionals take an interest, many children in need of support get missed.

Bring families and resources together

You can bring families and resources together. In your work, you may encounter adults with mental illness. Ask these patients if they have children and whether they are receiving any support. If the children are unsupported, you can refer them to a young carers’ service or family intervention programme such as a KidsTime Workshop.

You can alert and involve other professionals. Do not feel bound by your role. You may need to involve other professionals. Professionals need to work together in a cooperative framework to support these children. You can help find or be an advocate for these children.

Children affected by parental mental illness have told us how important it is to have a teacher, school nurse or another grown-up advocate. Just knowing that an adult holds them in mind can make a huge difference.

Tips for professionals to support children affected by parental illness

When you meet a family, do not be intimidated by the idea of mental illness. Ask questions and listen to the answers with curiosity. Take the opportunity to talk openly with the children you have contact with and use each encounter with families to check in with the children.

When involving other agencies or professionals, ensure you include the children’s views in any planning.

Signpost children and families to resources that can help them. Often, within families, there is no communication about the mental illness, due to shame or stigma. Encourage parents and children to talk to each other.

Try to ensure the child has a ‘holding’ person to advocate for them, or discuss with other professionals, family, or friends how this can be achieved. These children are often experts on their parent’s illnesses. Whatever your role, communicate with the children, and consider their opinions seriously. This will make them feel heard as well as give you information to help the family.


Building Children’s Resilience in the Face of Parental Mental Illness (2021)

‘Conversations with Children, Parents, and Professionals’ Edited by Alan Cooklin and Gill Gorrell Barnes. FOREWORDS BY ALASTAIR CAMPBELL AND PROFESSOR KIM FOSTER. Routledge, London and New York, 2021

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How To Support Young People Living with Parental Mental Illness

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