Otago Polytechnic
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Supporting stability

Jean Ross and Laurie Mahoney

Primary Care nurses are becoming more aware of the impact that parental mental health can have on children. Research shows that children who live with a parent with unstable mental health are at an increased risk of abuse and neglect.

“The effects of parental mental illness should be seen as a public health issue that requires appropriate support to be given to children,” says School of Nursing Senior Lecturer, Laurie Mahoney.

Her article, ‘Parental Mental Illness: The effects on children and nursing responsibilities in primary health care’ was published in the June issue of LOGIC, the journal of the College of Primary Health Care Nurses.

“Children who live in chaotic unpredictable environments respond in many different ways. Some externalise their behaviour and become aggressive and violent while others internalise their suffering and develop conditions such as eating disorders,” she says.

Often the problem is a generational cycle of parental mental ill health. The primary goal is to find methods that will help to build children’s resilience.

Research shows that resilient children can have good outcomes in spite of the major environmental risks they face. Their resilience can be linked to their temperament, ability to sustain separation from a parent and above all their social and intellectual capabilities.

Children’s resilience can be supported by reducing their feelings of guilt and shame through education about their parent’s illness.

“In the past, children’s perspective was mostly ignored.”

Today, primary care nurses learn how to assess children’s behaviour and, when required, intervene to provide carefully coordinated care to support these children, while parents are guided towards programmes that teach the benefits of consistent parenting.

“Children with a good relationship with at least one parent or who have a supportive external adult role model, quality peer relationships, and an extended social support system outside the home, are more likely to thrive.”

You can view more of Laurie Mahoney's research here