Have you heard that poem by Philip Larkin? ‘They fuck you up your mum and dad, they may not mean to but they do…’ It’s a beautiful reflection of the way in which we influence our children, and how we were influenced ourselves by our parents – and not always in a positive way.

One of the unspoken worries of all mums – not just the ones with mental health struggles – is the impact they have on their children. It came up on Women’s Hour last week, it comes up a lot in sessions with the mums and dads I work with, and it comes up many evenings for many parents as they flop on the sofa after the kids are asleep and reflect on their day. Should I have said that? Should I have done that? What if that damages them for life? 

The fact is, we do have a tremendous impact on our children. Not the only impact, but a huge one. We know this from attachment theory – which demonstrates that our children learn how to relate to other people based on their relationships with their primary caregivers (usually but not always the mum). They bring stuff to that relationship too – their own temperament and character – but how we respond to that becomes a blueprint for them about how people in general respond to other people in general.

And we know that having a parent with a mental health problem does have an influence on our children. I’m not going to give you the stats, because you’ve probably already Googled them in the middle of the night. 

Scary, right? But the main thing to remember is that when we talk about attachment we talk about PATTERNS. 

What about patterns? Well, attachment isn’t created by single encounters – attachment patterns are based on an impression of a relationship as a whole. So if you lose it with your kids occasionally, but more often you’re kind to them and interested in them, you love them and you show them you love them – that is the overriding impression they will be left with. 

One of the best and worst things to have happened in our generation is the huge amount of evidence we now have about child development. While research into temperament and attachment was around in our parents’ generation, they may not have had access to it. Our generation has seen us learn about epigenetics and fetal programming, how environment influences gene expression, how much parents can influence their children even in the womb – and it’s all at our fingertips most often in the middle of the night when our worries are at their worst. 

But while research gives a general impression, the stats that are regurgitated in headlines are never the simple cause and effect relationship that they are perceived to be. And they don’t reflect what is going on in your home.

So what is going on in your home? Only you know what happens behind closed doors, and sometimes it’s really hard to know what is normal because the other thing at our fingertips are millions and millions of images of perfect family life. Life where people don’t lose their tempers, or feel like collapsing in snotty tears on the floor in Tesco, or forget about World Book Day. 

So here are three things that can help to know about, when you’re wondering if your child might be affected by your mood:

1. Rupture and Repair

When all we see are perfect images of perfect parents and articles about how to be a better parent, even scripts about what you can say as a perfect response to your child, you could be forgiven for thinking that what we’re aiming for as parents is…well...perfection. But actually, even if we were able to protect our children entirely from the ups and downs of life, we’d be doing them a disservice by doing this. Children experiencing that relationships can rupture, but can also be repaired, is what teaches them resilience. You can see the brilliant psychologist Dr Allan Schore talking about that here. Do you want to teach your kids that bad things don’t happen, or that bad things can happen and they have the resources do deal with them? And when that bad thing is you crying in the kitchen, being honest with them about your feelings will teach them that it’s ok to talk about feelings. Which leads me on to….

2. It’s Not Your Fault (and It’s Not Your Problem)

It’s useful to remember that kids are essentially egocentric beings – they genuinely believe the whole world revolves around them. So, to use the words of the late, great Robin Williams, don’t be afraid to repeatedly tell them ‘It’s not your fault’. Depending on their age, with older children and teenagers, you might even want to share a little with them about what causes you to have struggles with your mood, and what you do to help yourself. This takes any secrecy or stigma away for them, again encouraging them to be open if they ever go through anything similar. You can tell them about where you are getting support too, particularly so that they don’t feel it is their responsibility to make you feel better. 

3. Frequency and intensity

Social Services are not there to take children away from their parents. Social Services are there to help parents look after their children.
— Emma

There’s a difference between occasionally losing it a bit and feeling that you are not able to contain your emotions. How often and how intensely you feel your mood takes over is the clue really as to whether you might want to seek some additional support. If you’re reading this thinking, hmmm I think maybe this is happening more often than I’d like, then don’t be afraid to talk about it. One of the biggest roles for parents is being a container for our children’s emotions. If our own emotions are spilling out of the container already, it just makes parenting much more difficult. There’s still a huge stigma for parents around talking about mental health. Everyone has the fear that they’ll go to the doctor and talk about what’s happening and the doctor will say ‘yep, you’re right, you’re totally nuts and we’re going to take your children away from you’. 

Well, firstly, let’s just bust that myth straightaway. Social Services are not there to take children away from their parents. Social Services are there to help parents look after their children. If anyone ever talks to you about a Social Services referral, chances are you’ll talk to some very lovely person who will encourage you in different ways to improve your life and that of your family. I’ve worked with a lot of families who have been greatly helped by their Social Worker (and, incidentally, none who haven’t). 

Secondly, and I know I’m biased, but talking really does help.
— Emma

Secondly, and I know I’m biased, but talking really does help. Often when your mood is taking over it can be really tricky to get to the bottom of what’s causing you to feel that way. Trust me, there’s always a reason. Sometimes it’s a complicated and multifaceted reason, but it’s always there. When I work with people, often the process feels a bit like we both become detectives, uncovering histories and patterns in previous relationships and relating them to what is happening now. It’s a bit like clearing out that drawer in the kitchen that everything gets dumped into. Becoming a parent has a habit of making that drawer fly open, as memories and feelings that you thought were long buried float up to the surface again. So how do you clear it out? Some things get chucked away, with you wondering how they ever ended up in there in the first place. Some things you pull out and examine more closely (these are the things that might make you cry with nostalgia and, sometimes, loss). And some things get put back in the drawer a little more neatly packaged, and less likely to spill out. 

There’s still a bit of shame around going to therapy, but actually I think it should be encouraged during pregnancy.
— Emma

There’s still a bit of shame around going to therapy, but actually I think it should be encouraged during pregnancy. When you become a parent, it taps into all of those parts of you that are still lurking around feeling sad and angry about the things that happened to you in your own childhood. Even if those things seem fairly insignificant, often the kind of messages they inadvertently left us with can have a lifelong impact until you spend a bit of time identifying them and questioning them. Becoming a parent can also complicate your relationship with your own parents in the here and now if they are still in your life, and often therapy can lead to a new, more equal relationship developing – taking into account their context and your own and creating a new understanding of each other. 

There’s a lot in the press now about mental health difficulties – in us, in our kids. It’s great that finally we’re talking about it but when we think about ‘mental health’ and ‘mental ill health’ in such a black and white way, it can be frightening. Every mistake we make can feel catastrophic. But mental health isn’t black and white, it’s more of a spectrum where we might move nearer and further away from wellness on a daily basis. And it will be like that for our kids too. We are sure to make mistakes, but by making them we’re showing that we’re ok with being flawed human beings – just like we’re ok with our children being the beautiful, flawed human beings they are. 

Written by Emma Svanberg

Perinatal clinical psychologist



If you'd like to read more conversations with Mental Muthas, click HERE.

Women talking unashamedly about their mental health and parenting innit.