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How to promote children’s resilience

In this article, Dr Alan Cooklin (founder of Our Time) highlights the importance of supporting children and young people to build resilience.

Let’s explore how to engage with and promote resilience in children affected by parental mental illness.

This article is adapted from the paper: ‘Promoting children’s resilience to parental mental illness: engaging the child’s thinking’ (Cooklin 2013).

In this article, we aim to help learners better understand how children affected by parental mental illness think. We also explore how to engage with these children to promote their resilience.

What is psychological resilience?

Psychological resilience is the capacity to successfully adapt to adversity, despite challenging or threatening circumstances (Masten 2009).

Why children’s resilience matters

Parental mental illness can seriously disrupt a child’s emotional and cognitive development. Yet some children fare better than others. The degree to which they have developed resilience is key to how they cope.

We know children affected by parental mental illness fear many of the following:

• That they will develop mental illness too

• That they will be blamed for causing their parent’s mental illness

• That they will be bullied because of their parent’s illness

• That they will never regain closeness with their parent

• That the family will not survive, and they will be taken into care

• That their ill parent will never recover, may get worse or die

• That the whole family will become the object of stigma and shame

Resilience can help reduce these fears.

How to promote children’s resilience

Children affected by parental mental illness are helped by three principles:

  1. Having a good explanation
  2. Having a trusted adult to talk to
  3. Knowing you are not alone.

Principle 1. Having a good explanation

Most children affected by parental mental illness receive no information or explanations about their parent’s illness. Even when parents are hospitalised, only 1 in 3 children is told why.

Without an explanation, children engage in many of the fears described earlier.

For children affected by parental mental illness, an age-appropriate explanation of mental illness, its treatments and impacts, is key to building resilience.

Talking about the illness with the child reduces the stigma, so the parent’s illness ceases to be unmentionable.

A good explanation helps children to feel more in control and less confused. It can protect them from self-blame and from developing frightening misconceptions about mental illness (Rutter 1999).

A clear explanation also helps children engage their brains. This allows them to think rationally about their parent’s behaviour rather than simply reacting to it, and to better discriminate between ‘normal’ and ‘illness’ behaviours.

Explanations should be:

  • Technical — presented in a familiar way much like a school science subject.
  • Process-based — presented in a way that helps the child understand how the illness develops. For example, you might describe how the adult finds it difficult to manage overwhelming feelings. The resulting ‘mental state’ can then be used to explain depression, misperceptions of reality and so on.
  • Two-way — As carers, these children already take on a huge responsibility. This needs to be acknowledged. Any explanation should be a sharing of ideas between child and professional.
  • Differentiated – The idea of mental illness can be frightening. So, children may try to see their parent’s illness as something physical. Help children to differentiate between mental and physical illness, but also encourage them to think of illness and health as a whole rather than separating mind and body. This will make it less scary for children to think and talk about mental processes.

The film ‘When a parent has a mental illness’ (Cooklin 2009) provides a good explanation to share with children.

Principle 2. Having a trusted adult to talk to

Children affected by parental mental illness benefit from having a neutral adult to whom they can turn. It could be a teacher, school nurse, or even a neighbour. The adult is someone outside of the immediate family with whom the child can discuss the illness. They should act as an informal advocate for the child and be available in times of crisis. Children say they feel better knowing an adult is looking out for them (Dyregrov 2010).

Principle 3. Knowing you are not alone

Children who have connected with peers similarly affected by parental mental illness, report feeling less isolated and stigmatised.

Learning points:
  • Children affected by parental mental illness want professionals to show a greater awareness of their needs and problems
  • Their resilience can be enhanced when they receive clear and understandable information about the source of their parent’s illness
  • Whatever their age, they can build resilience through talking about their worries to a trusted adult, and through knowing they are not alone


Cooklin, A. (2013). Promoting children’s resilience to parental mental illness: engaging the child’s thinking. Advances in psychiatric treatment, 19(3), 229-240.

Dyregrov, A. (2010). Supporting traumatized children and teenagers: A guide to providing understanding and help. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Masten, A. S. (2009). Ordinary magic: Lessons from research on resilience in human development. Education Canada, 49(3), 28-32.

Rutter, M. (1999). Resilience concepts and findings: Implications for family therapy. Journal of family therapy, 21(2), 119-144.

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How To Support Young People Living with Parental Mental Illness

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