Mental health and children: how are parents coping?

More and more parents are struggling to support children with mental health issues. But who is supporting them?

Psychotherapist working with young man in office,


Fiona has three children. One son is doing his A levels and has an offer from Oxford. Her daughter has suffered bullying at school with a significant impact on her mental health and her youngest son has ADHD. She says she has often wondered how she could hold down a proper job with all the support she has had to give her children, including two-hour-long Education, Health and Care Plan meetings, and the fact that most after school and holiday clubs can’t deal with her son. 

Fiona, who is a social media expert, is on a Facebook group and all the mums she knows are freelancers because their children have a special educational needs diagnosis. She adds that most of the parents are battling to get any support, for instance, from schools, and says they feel ‘lost’. She took a while to get any help for her son. “I was waving red flags, but I was told there was nothing wrong. Then the wheels came off and they realised something was wrong, but at the time that early intervention was possible I was not believed.” Things came to a head when she was told her son could not come back to school unless he was medicated. She moved him to another school which has been much better for him.

She mentions a mum whose son has an autistic spectrum and ADHD diagnosis and suffers from reflux which is linked to epilepsy and autism. Her son suffers from anxiety and refuses to go to school. He is too big physically for her to get him to school. 

Fiona is just one of the growing number of mums who have had to adapt their working lives or have dropped out of the workplace to deal with mental health issues as well as the practical issues linked with learning difficulties.

Women Returners reports that a growing number of its returnees have taken a career break due to having to care for teenagers with mental health problems. At its recent conference, Julianne Miles said the organisation was seeing more and more people applying for returner programmes for reasons other than taking a career break when their children were small, including caring for elderly relatives or teenage children with mental health problems. 

Mental health since Covid

Mental health problems – ranging from anxiety and depression to eating disorders and bipolar conditions – have been increasing in young people for some years, with Covid and the cost of living crisis making things worse. A survey by the Child Poverty Action Group released this week shows 65% of children surveyed worry about their family not having enough money while the NHS reported a higher need for support than ever in 2020. It said one in six young people in England (aged five to 16) had experienced a mental health problem in mid 2020, up from one in nine in 2017. The waiting list for any form of support is long. A report earlier this year shows average waiting lists have risen by two-thirds since 2021 in England, meaning children are waiting on average 21 weeks for a first appointment in England. The mental health crisis in young people also has a knock-on impact on young people who are of working age. The Resolution Foundation has reported recently on the growing problem of young people being economically inactive due to health issues, with mental health showing the sharpest increase among the reasons given.  

But the work problems are not just limited to young people themselves. Parents are also affected. 

Deirdre Kehoe, Director of Training and Services at YoungMinds, which runs a helpline for parents, says: “Young people’s mental health is being challenged more than ever before and they’re struggling to access the support they desperately need. Far too often, they face inadequate responses when they reach out for help or are forced to endure long waiting lists for treatment. 

“As the prevalence of mental health disorders among young people continues to escalate, parents are grappling with mounting pressure trying to find support for their children. We’re hearing more often from parents about complex cases with young people experiencing more than one mental health issue.  In some instances parents have quit their jobs in order to better care for their child. The situation is dire, and urgent action must be taken to make sure young people receive the mental health assistance they require.”   

Causes of mental ill health

The causes of mental ill health are many, complex and, as Kehoe says, sometimes multi-layered. They can be triggered by anything from bullying and exam pressure to bereavement and trauma. Many children with learning difficulties also suffer from anxiety and depression and the post-lockdown return to school has been difficult, moving back into noisy spaces with lots of social interaction. A recent education report  from the National Autistic Society highlighted a “woeful lack of appropriate school places and teachers are not being equipped to meet autistic students’ needs”. The research suggests only 26% of autistic pupils feel happy at school. Three in four parents or carers (74%) said their child’s school place did not fully meet their needs, and more than one in four parents (26%) waited over three years to receive support for their child.

Parents whose children suffer from anxiety and depression and will not go to school say they have changed jobs, got homeworking positions or set up their own business from home to get around the problems. Some join forces with other home educating families and take it in turns to have the children. Some use childminders and claim back childcare costs through Universal credit or working tax credits. Covid helped in terms of homeworking.

Fiona, whose father had a mental health condition which she struggled with as a child, is very concerned about the increase in mental health issues among young people. She questions whether the intensity of parenting these days has affected young people’s mental health. “Have we created what we have been trying to avoid?” she asks.

The pressure on mums to be perfect parents is huge, she says. She thinks society encourages mums to compartmentalise their working and home lives and says the goalposts for mums are always moving. Working from home helps enormously, she says, because she doesn’t have to pretend she doesn’t have children. She adds that she has “made peace” with the fact that she will not climb the career ladder. She says her experiences with her different children have taught her to question what success is for her children and to be more lenient on herself. “We have created a society that does not work for mums,” she says of the sheer exhaustion of trying to work and parent in today’s world, particularly if you face additional challenges. “I feel we have done our best in an imperfect system.”

YoungMinds says the lack of support for young people can also affect parents’ mental health. Deirdre Kehoe states: “It can be tough for parents and their mental health may also be affected, so it’s important they look after themselves. We encourage them to talk to their friends and family for support and to seek help if necessary. We also have a wide range of resources and advice for parents on the YoungMinds website.”

What can you do if your child has mental health issues and/or is not able to go to school?

Firstly, speak to your employer and inform them of your situation and see if there is any pattern of working that would make things easier for you in the short term. If you are unable to get the flexibility you need from work and have to change jobs, reduce your hours or start your own business, there is financial support available.

Speak to your school to see if there is support available there if you are having no luck through the GP due to the long waiting lists. Specialist support teams have been set up to work with children in schools, addressing early symptoms of mental health problems and reducing pressure on overstretched NHS services, although research suggests this might be patchy at best.  

You can get Disability Living Allowance if your child is anxious and depressed and refusing school. You may also qualify for Carers allowance, depending on your circumstances. There may be other benefits you can claim additionally so it is worth checking this with who have an online benefits calculator that can help you calculate what financial support you can get.

There are a range of organisations that can help you, including YoungMinds which has a parent support line and a guide for parents here – Parents’ A-Z Mental Health Guide | Mental Health Advice | YoungMinds. For children with learning difficulties there are organisations like the National Autistic Society. Joining forces with other parents in similar positions can also serve as a point of advice or support, for instance, there is a School Refusal Support Services for Phobia, Refusal & Separation Anxiety Facebook group that gives useful advice and empathy from others who are in a similar position.

*Are you struggling with your child’s mental health? We are keen to put a spotlight on the problems parents are facing. Tell us your experiences and the impact this has had on the family and, if you have had help, where this has come from and what form it has taken.

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