COPMI - Children of Parents with a Mental Illness - Keeping families in mind

Parenting: being a Dad

How you interact with your kids affects their development and wellbeing, and it's particularly important when there's mental illness in the family.

In the videos on this page dads and children who’ve a parent with mental illness talk about their relationships. Below you’ll find some tips to help you be the best for your kids.

>Click text on the left hand side of the video to switch to different videos.

To be the best for your kids, you'll need to understand them. Knowing their abilities and what interests them shows that you care. Being able to effectively communicate with your children fosters trust. This is easier if you are observant and are able to respond to their needs.

How well do you understand your child?

Many dads expect certain things for their kids. But when these expectations don't match the child's abilities, it can create all sorts of stressful situations. So get to understand your child’s potential and that it will change as they develop. When your expectations match your child’s abilities and interests, they feel secure and develop a trust in you.

What you can do (click here)
  • Take an interest in your child’s activities.
  • Ask questions about what they did at school, how the music lessons are going etc. Ask about their friends and talk about them when it’s appropriate to. 
  • Explore their thoughts and feelings and find out if they have worries or concerns.
  • Get to know your child and if you have difficulty relating, visit the Raising Children Network or read one of the many books available on child development or parenting.

How and what do you tell the kids?

When someone in the family’s not well, your child will most likely be confused or worried. Even if they’re not verbalising any questions or concerns, most will still be thinking about what’s going on and be trying to make sense of it. You can alleviate these concerns by explaining the situation in a way they’ll understand. This stops them from thinking they’re responsible. Many children blame themselves for a parent’s illness if it’s not been explained. It also helps them realise they aren’t alone in what they are experiencing which is also comforting.

What you can do (click here)
  • Tell your child that what’s happening is not their fault and encourage them to ask questions.
  • Be prepared; use these tips for discussing mental illness with your child
  • Let them know  mental illness can’t be ‘caught’ like a cold; and it’s common.
  • Explain that people can get better.
  • If appropriate, let them know the family can stay together. 
  • Develop a care plan with your children to action when you (or partner) are unwell.

Being observant

Observant parents notice when things impact emotionally on their children. When you notice signs of distress or stress, comfort them or arrange appropriate support.

Some children display negative behaviour changes which can warn you that something’s wrong. For example, if your child regularly complains of ‘feeling sick’ or has a stomach or head ache, your child may be stressed or worried. Some might withdraw from family and social activities. On the other hand, a child might seem their usual self at home but act out differently outside the home. It can help to talk to people at your child’s school to get a better picture of how they might be coping.

What you can do (click here)
  • Observe your child’s behaviour for signs of distress. 
  • Watch for negative changes in behaviour. 
  • Ask teachers or a coach about your child’s behaviour.


Seeking support for children

Sometimes it helps to get outside support. Having social connections within and outside the family fosters emotional resilience in young people. Social relationships with peers will help children cope with the challenges of mental illness in family life.

You and your children don’t need to resolve feelings of distress or stress on your own. If you’re concerned your child is distressed, you can work with a mental health professional. There’s plenty of information and support for children, like websites with first-hand stories they can read.

What you can do (click here)
  • Encourage your children to talk to trusted friends, teachers or a coach and keep positive connections with friends, family or community groups.
  • Get them learning more about mental illness (see kids section of our site) and join online discussions at or
  • Give them the details for Kids Helpline; a 24 hour counselling service for 5-25 year olds — or 1800 55 1800. 
  • Find a counsellor your child can speak with. Meeting your GP is a good place to start.


Be there for your children

Mental illness can be long-term and unpredictable. It can also be manageable with the right support. Staying involved with the family, and particularly your children shouldn’t be underestimated when it comes to your and your child’s wellbeing.

What you can do (click here)
  • Involve yourself in your child’s sport and school activities, go to the park or beach together. 
  • Share regular time together like watching a DVD, reading or playing computer games.
  • Find support for you and your family when you (or your partner) aren’t well.
  • Advocate for your children when necessary, for example if bullying or stigma impacts on them.

Creating stability

Routines and care plans give security to children when a parent’s mental illness disrupts family life. Being too rigid or too lose may not work, so review them often to check they’re effective. Conflict and disagreement are part of family life. But the way parents handle it is vital for their children’s wellbeing. If you’re not satisfied with how you’ve handled a situation, it might help to talk about it and apologise where appropriate.

What you can do (click here)
  • Establish boundaries, routines and plans that provide some choice and flexibility.
  • Get the children to help with some (not all) decisions can be effective.
  • Manage conflict and disagreement with respect

More for dads

Other COPMI pages:



Need to talk to someone?

Are you a parent with depression or anxiety?

Help your family understand. Find out how to discuss mental illness with them.