In the first Blog in this Series, we noted that, when parents separate, the legal system focuses on the physical custody schedule, which, while not trivial, is the least important predictor of outcomes for children with separated parents. In the second Blog in this Series, we addressed the factors that the research indicates are important when designing a child-focused physical custody schedule. In the third Blog in the Series, we addressed the socio-economic-educational status of the parents at or below the poverty line, post-separation and divorce.
In this Blog in the Series, we address the fifth most important factor: the Mental Health of the Parents. First and foremost, not all mental health problems create risk for children. In fact, some mental health conditions increase the likelihood that children will turn out well. As an example, compulsive parents are often hyper-responsible and organized and make healthy demands on their children (e.g., getting all of the homework done in a timely manner). A compulsive parent can be frustrating, especially if the child does not have the personality structure to become at least moderately compulsive, but nevertheless, most children will benefit from such a parent more than be harmed. Secondly, many mental health problems can be treated successfully, minimizing or eliminating the condition as a risk factor. As an example, severe depression in a parent is a risk factor, but most depression conditions can be successfully treated with a combination of medication and psychotherapy.
Nevertheless, some mental health conditions do pose risks to children because of the behavior patterns involved on the part of the parent, and when treatment is only partially successful or results in erratic functioning of the parent. Some personality disorders are called the “immature” personality disorders, specifically because of the unstable patterns of behavior and high level of selfishness. Untreated paranoid conditions and schizophrenia can lead to significant delays in critical thinking in children. Untreated anxiety and depression create special challenges that not all children can cope with successfully. Some conduct problems, such as domestic violence, can be the result of mental health issues, such as severe attachment insecurities and untreated angry hostility.
Fortunately, in all of these cases, treatment approaches have been developed that generally benefit the parent. The key is in getting a professional opinion with regard to the condition and engaging in a treatment regimen that can help. Even when a mental health condition cannot be completely alleviated with treatment, there is still hope. This is because the mental health condition is not the problem, the problem is where a child is exposed to parental behavior resulting from the condition. Even a parent with a persisting mental health problem can get coaching on how to manage the behavior that is the problem and present relatively healthy behaviors to the child.
One of the dilemmas in this area is that both parents can have mental health problems, often of different types, and sometimes present problematic behaviors to the children in both homes. Once again, some of these situations can be improved if both parents acknowledge behavior problems. Two steps are involved: first, teaming up and designing co-parenting rules and procedures, usually with the assistance of a mental health professional, who can minimize the negative effects of the problematic behavior; second, each parent being in treatment. The treatment might alleviate the symptoms, but if not, coaching can help contain the problematic behavior.
The take away is that if one or both parents have mental health problems, working as a team to get that diagnosed, treated and developing procedures for managing problematic behavior can reduce or even eliminate the children being adversely affected. The bad news is that in some cases, the safety of the children requires substantial restrictions on the parent with the problem. Not all problems have solutions.