Supporting the Mental Health of Parents
“Parenting stress” is a term that is used by psychologists to describe a feeling parents have when they feel that they are unable to meet the demands of parenting. This is a subjective concept because what parenting looks like for one person may be different for another. At some points along the parenting journey, all parents have this feeling. Sometimes, it can be a frequent and overwhelming experience. When this happens, parents’ behaviors can change to meet the demands of parenting, but not always in a positive way. Parenting stress can lead to a negative mood, decreased emotional well-being, decreased life satisfaction, and negative relationships with spouses and children. This does not just impact parents, it can also impact children in the present and future. Children can feel stressed, act out at home or school, regress, or become clingy. Long-term parenting stress on children can lead to trouble with peers and future relationships as well as increased risk for mental health and substance use issues. These outcomes show the importance of parents having a support system.
Giving support to a parent and their family may not be that simple. Everyone’s preference–and type of help needed–is different, so asking what you can do to support them is a great starting point. This allows the parent to feel in control and have a sense of independence about what they need. There are times when a parent does not know what they need. So, how can you still support them?
Offer to take something off their plate. For instance, ask if they would like you to provide dinner for them and their family or to watch their child(ren) for an evening so they can do some self-care. This can help the parent with ideas about what they could use help with. The ultimate decision is up to them. If they say no, then simply let them know that you are there when they are ready.
Finally, normalize seeking mental health treatment. The stigma around mental health can be very negative for some communities. That stigma can prevent people from seeking the help that they need. Let the parent know that getting help does not make them “crazy.” Rather, it makes them a responsible adult because they are asking for help when they need it. Don’t stop there. Help the parent find mental health services. Calling the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) or their insurance company with them to find a provider can be helpful. Additionally, going with them to the appointment and/or being a listening ear when they are in treatment can be ways to support a parent and get the help they need. Seeking care is one thing, but having the support of others during treatment is priceless. Research shows that people who have social support are more likely to actively participate, be compliant, and complete treatment.
Being a parent is a tough but rewarding job. When parenting gets to be overwhelming and begins affecting a parent’s mental health, it can also impact the child(ren). This means that parental mental health needs to take priority. Asking them what they need, offering to take something off their plate, and normalizing mental health treatment can all work together to support a parent’s mental health.