Parenting, though rewarding, may still be one of the most difficult and time-consuming aspects of a person’s life. In addition to tending to an infant or child’s daily needs, parents are also generally responsible for helping each of their children develop life skills, social skills, and appropriate behaviors, while accounting for the unique personality of each child. Parents who become overwhelmed may find the support of a mental health professional to be helpful, particularly when faced with a difficult situation or behavioral concern.
From the moment a pregnancy is announced, most parents will receive multiple suggestions and pieces of advice on how to raise their child. Pediatricians provide information to new mothers regarding the health and safety of infants, various media sources offer extensive and often conflicting advice on child-rearing, and family members may have widely varied opinions on what is best for a child.
New parents may often be overwhelmed by this advice and unsure of what is best for their child, so they may turn to a pediatrician, therapist, or other health professional for advice. Experts in the field of child psychology and development generally agree there is no one method of parenting that is “best,” and parents may wish to try different styles of parenting to see what works for their family. While extensive research and studies generally back the advice that is given by pediatricians and other health professionals—such as encouraging parents to place infants to sleep on their backs to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)—other advice may be less valid. Regardless of where the advice came from, parents may wish to speak to a health care professional before following any advice that makes them uncomfortable in any way.
According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, parents are generally responsible for:
- Keeping children safe.
- Listening to children and spending time with them.
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- Providing affection, order, and consistency.
- Setting and enforcing limits for children.
- Monitoring friendships children make.
- Seeking help for any medical or behavioral concerns.
Raising a child can be difficult for many reasons. Caring for a child, especially an infant or toddler, can take up a significant amount of time, and it may be challenging to maintain strong relationships with a spouse or romantic partner, or with friends. Many parents face financial challenges or find it difficult to coordinate schedules and arrange child care. A parent who stays home with a child or children may feel overworked in the home and resent the other parent for working outside the home, which can put strain on a partnership. Parenting is also often physically demanding: some parents with young children spend a significant part of their day cleaning, doing laundry, and performing other household tasks, and many report insufficient sleep.
Parenting may become even more difficult when a child exhibits signs of a behavioral challenge, physical or intellectual disability, or mental or physical illness. It may be especially difficult to cope when a child who requires extensive medical treatment or other extra care is not the only child in the home, and parents may find it difficult to give all children equal amounts of attention. This may lead some parents to experience guilt along with greater levels of stress.
Research has shown when parents are not united, do not communicate well, or otherwise send confusing messages to children, it may be difficult for children to understand what is expected of them. The child may react to this inconsistency with misbehavior, creating further challenges for parents. Thus, child psychologists and other specialists emphasize the importance of presenting a cohesive parenting team.
A parent is often the most influential person in a child’s life, even after the child becomes an adult, and children will often look to their parents for guidance on ethical and moral topics as well as the typical concerns of daily life. Because a parent’s behavior, ideas, and beliefs will likely largely influence those of their children, especially in a child’s early years, the biases and prejudices of a parent are often learned by the child.
Children who overhear parents using language that implies a certain group of people is somehow lesser than other groups, making disparaging remarks about other individuals, or giving voice to negative and stigmatizing beliefs about other people may adopt these attitudes as part of their own beliefs. Similarly, parents' religious and political views often become the child’s views, at least until the child is of an age to question belief systems. This may only be concerning when parents strongly encourage a child to support the parents' beliefs and discourage the child from seeking out other ideas, as this can lead a child to develop a limited worldview and be less likely to seek out other viewpoints in adulthood.
A child will typically also learn attitudes of acceptance from parents. When a child is raised in a household that embraces equality and diversity, by parents who do not discount the ideas and viewpoints of others, it is likely the child will grow up to be accepting of all people and experiences.
A parent’s influence can be limited, however. Children may learn new ideas from friends, from the media, and at school. A traumatic event may also impact a child’s development or behavior, and peer pressure can lead a child to develop problematic behavior in spite of a parent’s efforts to keep the child safe. Many parents choose to use their own parents’ style or method of parenting, believing what worked for them will work for their own children. However, each child and family is different, and a particular method of parenting may not work for all children.
Many parents continue to offer support and guidance to children who have reached adulthood, especially in the case of a child who is coping with a chronic or temporary issue. However, some adult children may resent what they see as continued parental influence and refuse assistance. Some children may engage in risky or destructive behavior, and parents may be unable to reach them or be unsuccessful when encouraging them to seek help. This powerlessness is likely to be difficult and distressing for parents, but a therapist or other mental health professional can help parents explore ways to cope with these circumstances or reach out to their children, when possible.
Parents coping with issues outside the home, in their personal relationships, or with finances or health may find the challenges of parenting stressful and difficult to cope with at times, especially when a child is also facing an issue.
The number of single-parent households in the United States is increasing. Some parents are single by choice, while others may lose a spouse or partner through death or separation. A single parent often experiences increased stress due to an increased amount of parenting responsibility. When a parent suddenly becomes single, children may be traumatized and have difficulty coping with the loss of the other parent, which can often lead to behavioral difficulties. When divorced parents share custody of children, the children may find rules and routines differ from one house to the next, and this inconsistency may be difficult for them to adapt to. Single parents might find it difficult to enforce rules and discipline children without support, and they may also experience the added stress of financial difficulties.
Single parents, especially those with small children in the home, may find it challenging to meet potential romantic partners and go out on dates. This may lead to isolation and loneliness, and conditions such as depression and anxiety may develop, causing further stress. Staying connected with relatives and friends, creating a support system, and making time for self-care as well as child care are all ways that single parents may be able to cope with challenges and reduce stress in their lives. When specific challenges arise, a therapist may be able to help an individual address those concerns.
Counseling and therapy can help parents in various ways. Some parents may become stressed by a particular parenting challenge, be it a one-time event or recurring situation. When a child faces a mental health concern or behavioral issue, a parent may find help for the child but leave their own emotions and feelings unaddressed. This can be harmful in some cases, as stress may accumulate and leave the parent feeling overwhelmed. In therapy, a parent can address their feelings about a certain issue, find support and guidance, and seek professional help for parenting issues and concerns.
Parents may seek out a therapist that specializes in child development or behavioral health concerns or a family therapist to address issues affecting the whole family. Family therapy may be helpful because each member of the family can bring up individual concerns that connect to the family dynamic, and parents can become aware of issues that need to be resolved.
Individual therapy can also be helpful, and some parents may find couples counseling can strengthen their parenting skills, as strengthening their partnership may help couples become better able to resolve disagreements about child-rearing or family life.
When parenting issues lead to stress, this stress may manifest itself through worry, depression, irritability, or anger. Some situations, such as the loss of a child or partner, may lead to grief, depression, or posttraumatic stress. When these conditions go untreated, the well-being of any other children may be affected. Therapy can help address and treat these issues. A therapist or other mental health professional is also likely to encourage parents to make time for themselves whenever possible and maintain a self-care routine.
Some parents have mental or emotional issues of their own that make parenting particularly challenging. For example, parents with conditions such as depression, bipolar, or schizophrenia may find the normal stresses of parenting difficult to handle without help, and they may worry that the well-being of their children will be negatively impacted as they attempt to cope with their condition. Individual therapy that reduces the symptoms of an individual’s condition can reduce worry in this area as parents work to achieve wellness.
A parent with anger management or control issues may find therapy helpful for developing healthy and safe ways to address and manage thoughts and emotions and thus become better able to communicate with a partner or child.
Statistics reported in 2014 show about 1 in 6 parents will experience a mental health concern, with single parents being twice as likely to have some sort of mental health issue. Past age 35, women are more likely than men to experience a mental health concern. Financial status can also play a part: those in lower socioeconomic groups are statistically more likely to experience mental health issues. Further, being part of a lower socioeconomic group and facing a mental health challenge are both factors that put a person at higher risk for substance abuse and other health concerns.
About 1 in 6 parents will experience a mental health concern.Parents, especially single parents, who are coping with a mental health concern may feel isolated, helpless, and hopeless. They may be afraid to seek help out of shame, embarrassment, or worry that disclosure of their condition may lead to custody battles or the loss of their children. Parents may feel guilty because they are not well, and they may find it exhausting to complete chores or care for children. Many individuals experiencing a severe mental health concern find it difficult to work, leave the house, or provide their children with necessities, guidance, or affection.
Treatment can help parents address and resolve many of their concerns. A therapist, counselor, or other health professional can work with parents to develop strategies and methods to get through the times when they are most affected by their condition, and therapy to address the issues causing their condition can often help reduce symptoms or even eliminate them. Therapy can be beneficial in the treatment of any issue faced by parents but may be especially helpful when a parent has an underlying issue that affects the parent's ability to care for a child. When parents are able to address and treat issues affecting their health, they are likely to find themselves better prepared to face the varied challenges of raising a child.
- Learning new communication skills in therapy: Samara, 30, makes an appointment with a therapist to seek help in dealing with her 4-year-old son, Jal. Samara reports that Jal is aggressive toward his younger sister, rude, unwilling to listen, and often seems upset. She tells the therapist she has tried multiple things with Jal, but he does not respond to any form of discipline and will not tell her what is wrong. When she gives him a time-out, he gets up and wanders away. Though her mother encourages her to spank Jal, Samara says she is unwilling to do so. The therapist agrees spanking is not recommended and asks Samara a little more about Jal's behavior, learning that Jal began to act in a disruptive manner shortly after his sister's first birthday. Samara says he did not seem jealous at first, but now he refers to his sister only as "stupid baby" and often takes her toys and tosses pillows and soft toys at her. The therapist encourages Samara to bring Jal in for a session. After her discussion with Jal, the therapist reports to Samara that Jal is frustrated because his sister often wakes him up when she wakes in the night—the two children share a room—and although she is rocked back to sleep, he has to get back to sleep on his own, which is sometimes difficult for him. His tiredness and frustration is expressed through rudeness toward his sister and general irritability. The house is not large enough for Jal to have his own room, but from that point on, whenever Samara puts her daughter back to sleep, she also spends time helping Jal get back to sleep, and his behavior begins to improve immediately. Samara encourages Jal to discuss any frustrations with her, and she resolves to pay more attention to any potential stressors that may affect him.
- Alvy, K. (n.d.). How do parents' own biases impact their children? Retrieved from http://www.tolerance.org/publication/how-do-parents-own-biases-impact-their-children
- Grusec, J., & Danyliuk, T. (2014, December 1). Parents' Attitudes and Beliefs: Their Impact on Children's Development. Retrieved from http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/parenting-skills/according-experts/parents-attitudes-and-beliefs-their-impact-childrens-development
- Hansen, A. (2013, September 3). The Mysterious and Alarming Rise of Single Parenthood in America. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/09/the-mysterious-and-alarming-rise-of-single-parenthood-in-america/279203
- Parenting with a mental illness. (2014, April 23). Retrieved from http://raisingchildren.net.au/articles/parenting_with_a_mental_illness.html
- Single parent? Tips for raising a child alone. (2014, May 17). Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/single-parent/art-20046774
- United States National Library of Medicine. Parenting. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/parenting.html#summary
Last updated: 01-15-2016
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