Parenting with a mental health disorder during COVID-19

By The Health News Team | April 15, 2020
Woman sitting on couch with children passing by

These are especially trying times as we all navigate the changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. For those with mental health conditions, stresses caused by sheltering in place with family members, changes in job security, and concerns about the health of yourself and loved ones can be particularly challenging.

While parents with psychological illnesses have likely built a set of coping skills to manage everyday life, we are not currently living our “everyday” lives. Anxiety, depression, panic disorders and other conditions can become exacerbated and more difficult to manage, as well as more evident to the children living in your home. This is why it is important to be open with your family members about your condition and how they can help you manage it.

Talking to kids about mental health
“Having transparency about mental health can open up the dialogue using age-appropriate language,” says Elizabeth Callahan, EdD, a licensed psychologist and behavioral health therapist at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. “For example, when talking to a small child, you can share that sometimes people get sad and sometimes people experience something called depression, which is more than just a feeling of sadness.”

This can be followed by general information about what those symptoms might look like for you, such as oversleeping, low mood, and not enjoying things like hobbies or spending time with the people you love. However, Dr. Callahan recommends that you do not share details related to your condition that a child might find scary or overwhelming.

When talking to a teen, Dr. Callahan advises that you can be a bit more candid and share information about more serious issues related to your mental health. This might include sharing that there were times you have needed to go to a hospital for treatment or very low moments when you have thought about ending your life and how you coped with those feelings.

The importance of support
It is also important, especially when you are feeling more stress than usual, to have the help of other adults in your life that can also be there for your children. Whether it’s your spouse or partner, a close relative or a family friend, your child needs to know that you have multiple sources of support and that caring for you during challenging times does not fall on them alone.

According to Dr. Callahan, this models to your child that having a support network of multiple people is a strength, and that they can lean on those people for support too. For example, if a child knows that their aunt is aware of their mother’s mental health challenges and is there to help, they can feel comfort in knowing that they are not alone.

“You can, however, ask your child for assistance in age-appropriate ways,” Dr. Callahan says. “In asking for support, which can be as simple as asking your child to turn down the volume of the TV when you need to rest, you create a dialogue between yourself and your child about your illness versus having your child become afraid of the mental health symptoms you might be experiencing.”

Signs to watch for in children
Parents with mental health disorders should also watch for signs and symptoms of mental health struggles in their children. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the chance of an individual having a mental health disorder is higher if there is a family history of other members having the same disorder. However, most mental health conditions are caused by a complex combination of genetic and environmental factors, such as trauma or substance abuse.

“If parents are concerned about the heritability of a mental illness and want to discuss it with their children, it’s important to discuss it as a possibility versus a guarantee,” Dr. Callahan says. “Some mental health diagnoses have a higher heritability rate than others, and just because one family member has a diagnosis does not mean another in the family is guaranteed to get it.”

Signs of mental health concerns that parents and other family members should watch for in children and teens include the following:

  • Excessive sleeping, difficulty in sleeping, or other sleep disorders

  • Loss of self-esteem

  • Loss of interest in favorite activities

  • Decreased desire to connect with friends and loved ones

  • Weight loss, loss of appetite or over-eating

  • Changes in personality, such as aggressiveness and excessive anger

  • Thoughts of self-harm or wanting to die

“Above all, it’s important that the message of love is there,” Dr. Callahan says. “For example, you might explain that there are times when you feel depressed or there may even be times when they might feel depressed. But if you love each other during all times — both good and bad — that love can help you get through.”

Talk to your doctor if you or your child are experiencing excessive sadness, anxiety or worry for an extended period. Call 911 if anyone, including yourself, may be at risk for self-harm or suicide. Learn more about mental health services at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital and read important COVID-19 information from Sharp.

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