How To Support Children Affected By Their Parents' Mental Health Needs with Helena Kulikowska

How To Support Children Affected By Their Parents' Mental Health Needs with Helena Kulikowska

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Many children are affected by the mental health needs of their parents - whether that impact is emotional, or having to become more self-sufficient at an early age. And some even find the roles of child and adult have swapped, and they've become the carer for their parent.

So how do we help them cope with that emotional pressure and succeed in school? Helena Kulikowska from the charity Our Time shares her practical advice for supporting pupils affected by this issue.

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Show notes / transcription

Helena Kulikowska  0:00  

There's a fear within families of if we do ask for help, or if we say anything or reveal anything that could mean that social services get involved. And that could mean that the family is broken up or the children are removed from their parents. And sadly, that has been the experience for very many families who have struggled alone for a long time.

Simon Currigan  0:20  

Hi there and welcome to Episode 34 of school behaviour secrets. If this podcast or a musical instrument, it'd be a trumpet because everyone knows the trumpet is the king of the brass instruments and could definitely take down a saxophone in a street fight. My name is Simon Currigan and fair warning of all puckered up and ready to blow. My co host is Emma Shackleton. Hi, Emma.

Emma Shackleton  1:22  

Hi, Simon.

Simon Currigan  1:23  

Before we get started, I've got a quick question for you.

Emma Shackleton  1:26  

Oh that's massively unexpected. Go on.

Simon Currigan  1:28  

Have you ever needed help with something but felt awkward about asking?

Emma Shackleton  1:33  

This one was actually pretty tricky for me to answer because I'm quite confident usually in asking for help. But I guess that's not the same for everyone, though. How about if I turn the tables and ask you the same question Simon?

Simon Currigan  1:47  

Yeah, sure. I mean, I feel quite confident using things like computers and websites and things like that. And I remember one of my jobs actually, when I was working in a primary school, I was doing some maintenance and trying to get rid of some files that were clogging up one of the servers and I accidentally deleted three weeks of work for everyone in the school. I should have asked for help from the technician who couldn't recover the files either. So I felt nervous asking about help then. I'm asking because there are huge numbers of children out there who are struggling with issues at home but don't want to ask for help. And this group of children far far exceeds the number of kids affected by conditions like autism or ADHD.

Emma Shackleton  2:24  

So what is the issue?

Simon Currigan  2:25  

They're affected by their parents mental health issues rather than their own. So they may be coping with their parents anxiety or depression, sometimes the roles of parent and child may even become reversed. Now the child is acting as the carer for the parent that the thing is because of the social stigma around mental health, or because they're worried they'll end up getting referred to social services. They suffer in silence and don't get the help they need.

Emma Shackleton  2:52  

And I believe the figures show that this affects about 20% of kids.

Simon Currigan  2:56  

That's right. And that's what today's interview is all about supporting kids struggling to cope with their parents mental illness. And in just a moment, you'll be able to hear my conversation with Helena Kulakowska from the charity Our Time about how you can support kids in your class affected by this issue.

Emma Shackleton  3:15  

But before we play that interview, I've got a quick favour to ask Please, could you share this episode with one or two colleagues you know, so the kids in their classrooms can get the help that they need. All you've got to do is open your podcast app, hit the share button and send a direct link by email, messenger, however you like to communicate with your friends.

Simon Currigan  3:36  

Now, here's my interview with Helena Kulikowska. I'd like to start by welcoming our guest Helena Kulikowska to the show. Helena is development director for the charity Our Time, who supports children who are affected not by their own mental illness, but by the mental illness of their parents. And this is a much overlooked area of need in our schools. But the emotional impact on those pupils is very real, and it has a significant impact on their lives, especially for those students who find themselves in the role of carer at a very early age. Our time provides schools with resources and training about the needs of children of parents with mental illness. And if you haven't seen their website already, I want to say that the free resources and activity packs they've got available are of a very high quality. Helena thanks for joining us today to talk about this important issue. 

Helena Kulikowska  4:26  

Thanks very much, Simon. It's lovely to be here and a pleasure to meet you. 

Simon Currigan  4:30  

So let's start by getting an idea of the scale of this issue. How many children are affected by the mental health needs of their parents?

Helena Kulikowska  4:38  

Well, Simon, we know that 2.9 million children and young people in the UK are currently living with a parent who has a diagnosis of anxiety or depression. So that's 2.9 million children and young people. However, that figure only includes parents that have have anxiety or depression. We know from our community projects or our family work and our work in schools that actually there is a plethora of mental health difficulties and mental illnesses that affect families. In our workshops alone, we have parents who have multiple diagnoses complex mental health issues, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, schizophrenia are very common, and often they sit alongside a diagnosis of anxiety and depression too. So the number is considerable, we can confidently assume that the number is far above and beyond 2.9 million. The challenge we have in the UK is that because these children and young people are not recognised in national policy, there is no legislation or policy guidelines specifically for this group or practice guidelines for professionals working with children and families where a parent has a mental illness. That means it is very hard to count the number of children and young people affected, it's very difficult to give a complete and an accurate picture. However, the figures that I have quoted are from the recent Children's Commissioner's reports undertaken in the last couple of years.

Simon Currigan  6:22  

So if those estimates were about right, just to give our listeners an idea of how big this issue is, autism rates, top out affecting about one in 50 children, we're talking about one in five children, that's up to six children in every single class. And really, it's surprising that there isn't government led big picture counting analysis and support for these children who have really significant practical and emotional needs.

Helena Kulikowska  6:45  

Sadly, the UK lags behind in this issue. There are some countries including Australia, Norway, and some of the other Scandinavian countries and Canada as well who are further ahead than us in this area. In Norway, for example, they do have legislation specifically for this group, and in Australia as well. So that is something that our charity is very much campaigning for. And yes, six children in every classroom. It's something that when we say that a lot of people feel very shocked and surprised by that. However, if one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health difficulty or mental illness in their lifetime, that's no surprise, I think people find it difficult to talk about mental illness, and especially about parental mental illness. In society today, obviously, we've made huge strides. And in the media and in schools, there's been a real push to recognise mental health and promote positive mental health and well being. And there are some fantastic initiatives and organisations out there working with schools around mental health. However, we're still uncomfortable about talking and naming mental illness. And that still remains a stigma. And it is a difficult topic. And I think that's why a lot of professionals and schools worry about addressing it because they might feel that they don't have enough knowledge or understanding. They don't want to upset the children or offend the parents. So a lot of the schools we work with initially, they might recognise parental mental health as an issue or something that impacts children and young people in their school, but they don't feel confident in addressing it.

Simon Currigan  8:28  

Let's have a look at how the issue affects the children themselves to start with. And I suppose there are two separate elements to this. There's the sort of practical side about getting to school and managing your life and coping with your parents needs in the home. But also, there's the emotional impact. Can you talk to us about the impact of those needs on the child how they perceive it?

Helena Kulikowska  8:47  

Yeah, absolutely. So a lot of children and young people in this situation. And I must say by no means all just because you have a parent with a mental illness doesn't necessarily mean you will experience a negative impact. I think that the challenge for many of our young people is that very many of them are in in single parent families. If you have a strong support network around you or another parent that can make a really huge difference to your own mental health and well being and your outcomes because there is someone there to support you and help you to make sense of the situation and access support. However, sadly, mental illness can often break up families. Sometimes it is associated with or considered alongside other complex issues such as domestic violence and substance misuse. Obviously, those two things are factors that can lead to family breakup as well. So very often these children and young people might find themselves alone. And we've often heard from these children and young people, they've told us that before finding out where they can access supports or accessing support through our charity, they felt very much alone in the world. So in terms of what the impacts are, as you said, there might be some practical elements to it. So there could be a adult child role reversal in the household where the child or young person, often the older sibling will be caring for the parent or possibly other siblings in the household. And that could involve practical things as other young carers or carers of parents with physical illnesses and disabilities might experience as well. It could involve helping around the house and giving the parent their medication. For example, getting other siblings ready for school. Emotionally, that is a big factor as well, because some of these young people might be providing emotional support to their parent, especially if their parent doesn't feel like they have anyone else to talk to. And that emotional support might not be age appropriate. A lot of the young people also experience a lot of fear and worry, especially when nobody explains their parents mental illness to them. So a very common fear for these children is, well I catch a mental illness? Because my mom or dad has a mental illness, does that mean that I am doomed to have a mental illness myself as well? In addition to that, a lot of young people feel responsible, have I caused my parents illness? and can I fix it? And they will make attempts to make their parent feel better or feel happy. And when that's not possible, often the young people will blame themselves. And inevitably, that will impact on their self esteem and mental health. Another thing that's very significant is isolation. And stigma in a lot of the families that we work with stigma around the mental illness is a common factor. So mental illness sometimes isn't even spoken about within the family, let alone outside of it. And that is something that we see across all cultures. So the mental illness is like an elephant in the room that is seen, but unspoken. And that can be really difficult when it's something that is affecting the whole family, but they don't feel that they are able to speak about it. And as a result, a lot of these families are isolated from your traditional support networks. If you have a problem in the family, you might reach out to extended family or friends that we hear very often that that's something they feel that they hadn't been able to do. And inevitably, this might affect the young person's school life, they might be coming to school, tired, withdrawn, not having had the space or time or energy to complete their homework. And very often these young people aren't the troublemakers or they are very fearful of outside interventions, because there is also fear within families of if we do ask for help. Or if we say anything called reveal anything, that could mean that social services get involved. And that could mean that the family is broken up or the children are removed from their parents. And sadly, that has been the experience or very many families who have struggled alone for a long time, and have only been able to get support once things got really, really bad. And that's required critical statutory interventions, which obviously are very disruptive for the family. So on the one hand, we really encouraged professionals to notice this group of young people, because a lot of them at least initially want to remain hidden. They don't want to draw attention to themselves or their family situation. So all of these things, they're not having an explanation, not understanding it not having any support in making sense of it, feeling possibly responsible worrying about developing a mental illness yourself feeling stigmatised, isolated, and not having anyone to talk to, in addition to the possible burden of care, that could be for the parents or other siblings in the household. Inevitably, that will cause a high level of stress for these young people or could cause high levels of stress and enormous pressure for these young people, which could certainly impact on their mental health. However, that is not inevitable. There are things that can be done and with support, we can put really good protective factors in place for these young people.

Simon Currigan  14:37  

I just like to take a pause for a moment and say that if you're finding this podcast useful, then you're going to love what we've got waiting for you inner inner circle programme. The inner circle is your one stop shop for all things behaviour. It's a comprehensive platform filled with videos resources, from behaviour inspiration to get you unstuck with classroom behaviour. We've got training resources on de escalation, supporting kids with anxiety support strategies for conditions like autism, ADHD, and PDA. practical ways of helping pupils deal with strong emotions, assertive behaviour management techniques for managing the whole classroom, setting out your classroom environment for success. Resetting behaviour with tricky classes and more. Our online videos walk you through practical solutions, step by step, just like Netflix, you can turn an inner circle subscription on or off whenever you need to, with no minimum contract. Plus, you can now get your first seven days of inner circle for just one pound. Get the behaviour answers in you've been looking forward today with inner circle, visit and click on the inner circle picture near the top of the homepage for more information. 

You said support relies on having an attuned adult, I'd like to unpick what that means what kind of practical skills do we as school leaders and teachers and people who work in schools? What do we need to develop practically to help support those children in our classrooms?

Helena Kulikowska  16:10  

Yeah, I said it takes a trained eye. And I do think it does. But that doesn't mean you need to be a mental health expert or need lots and lots of training and specialism in this area. That's actually something that schools and professionals worry about. So teachers will say to us, but I'm not a social worker, I'm not a counsellor. I'm not a mental health expert. How can I support this issue? So that's the number one thing we say to teachers, you don't need to be a mental health expert in order to support these young people. And you also don't need to have all the answers and you don't need to fix it. So what I would say it's about taking notice and being open and inquisitive, asking questions, if you notice that a young person is withdrawn, or seems preoccupied with their thoughts is under a lot of stress is not being their usual selves. Ask questions and listen to what they have to say, Don't force the young person to talk but be consistent with your interest. And it can be quite a general question. You could say I've noticed you haven't quite been yourself recently, I've noticed you've been quite tired or preoccupied? Is everything okay at home? Is there something that's on your mind? Don't put too much pressure or force on the young person to talk if they don't want to, because they might be very afraid of that. And they won't necessarily initially trust you. But it's important to be consistent with your interests. So maybe make an effort to check in every couple of days or once a week, or however frequently feels appropriate in the context of the situation. And then if the young person opens up to you ask them what they would like to happen next. And you might provide some suggestions, they might only be talking about it with you for the first time. So they might not know what they want to do or what they want to happen. So that could be a suggestion of finding out more information about that particular thing they've asked about, or it might be helping them to access some young carers support or support for themselves or their family. Confidentiality is a question that often comes up. And it's really important to be upfront about this. So inviting outside intervention or intervention from social services is something that the young people really fear, they worry about getting their family into trouble, or they worry about being separated from their parents. So it's important to be clear about the confidentiality you can keep. So as a general rule, we say that the conversation you have with the young person is strictly confidential. And you respect that confidentiality. However, be upfront that if there is anything that they disclose to you, which means you would be worried for their well being or that would make you think that they are risk, then you have a duty to report that obviously. Other things that you can do: It's about creating space, being compassionate and not punitive. When we work with schools and teachers, we say it's about creating a safe space or a safe environment, within a school where the young person feels supported. So that could be they don't have their homework on one morning because of something that's been going on at home, it might be that they're allowed to go to the library to quietly get on with that and catch up. They might have an agreement with you that if it's not a good day, they can go to a space or have time within the classroom to quietly get on with their work or do some reading or whatever might be appropriate, if the young person is late, you're aware of a difficult situation at home being compassionate and understanding and not punitive or punishing as that might isolate the young person further, a really important thing, which I haven't yet mentioned is don't target the young person. What I mean by that is because they already experienced a lot of stigma, or might experience a lot of stigma, and don't necessarily want to be noticed, when you're having these conversations, make sure it is in a confidential space where they're not singled out amongst their peers, when a young person is singled out, and I'm sure this is obvious to listeners, you risk isolating them further. And also it sends a signal that there is something wrong with them that they are the issue or that it's them that have the problem. And it singles them out from their peers from whom they might already feel quite isolated.

Simon Currigan  21:02  

Your charity supports children by helping the local community set up things like workshops and providing training and advice to schools and other stakeholders. Can you tell us about the experiences of one of your children and the difference that approach has made to their lives?

Helena Kulikowska  21:17  

There are so many examples, but I've picked out a few. So one of them is actually my best friend who I've known for many years. And she was a trustee for the charity for for some time. And she grew up in a household where both parents had a mental illness. And the family never received any support. There were hospitalizations of both her parents throughout her childhood, because they came from the outside looked as a wealthy middle class family. And both her and her sister went to private schools, you know, from the outside, people thought everything's fine, and nobody really stepped into intervene. But what my friend has told me on many occasions, is that it was in fact, the teacher at her school noticed that something wasn't right, she noticed that my friend was very quiet and withdrawn, and quite ostracised from her peers, sometimes bullied. And so what this teacher did is she noticed and when my friend came in, and teacher could tell it had been a you know, a bad couple of days or a bad evening, she would let her go and do her homework in the library and also give her books to read. Something else to focus on that can offer the young person a bit of quiet time and a positive distraction. A lot of our young people tell us that they often retreat to the world of books or music or something to calm their mind and distract themselves. So that is a good example. Because it's not anything particularly profound. This teacher didn't give mental health advice. It was something incredibly simple, just creating time and space, and taking notice and saying I see you and I can see that you're having a difficult time and being supportive in that way. And that can make a huge difference. And it's something my friend has said that was the only person when she was young at that time that took notice and did something and now she runs her own publishing PR company so that books were her inspiration. And one of our other trustees who now actually works in the mental health field with both children and adults. She attended our multifamily workshops since she was a teenager. And she also said it was a teacher at school that noticed. So she had quite a traumatic experience with her parents who had a mental illness. And when she was a teenager, she started getting into trouble at school. So her grades suddenly started slipping. She was disengaged and you know, changed friendship groups and started behaving sort of inverted commas, badly, and it was a teacher that noticed this and actually took her aside and spoke to her and said, You know, what's going on? This isn't you and that really helped to get back on the right track. And then finally another example of a boy or he will be grown up now but who attended one of the schools which we work with, there's a video of him on our websites where he said before his school undertook our programme and started raising awareness of mental health and mental illness. He said previously, he had no friends. He couldn't talk about it to anyone but being able to talk about it at school and with his peers not only helped him to understand the situation and not be embarrassed about it or ashamed about it. It helped him to cope and feel less isolated and more supported. t We've got so many stories of more young people that have gone on to do Amazing things and wanted to stress that, you know, teachers have so much to do, and they're already under so much pressure. So this can feel like another issue or another thing that we are asking them to do, but it's a small intervention can can make huge difference for these young people. And when I say intervention, that doesn't mean a specialist, detailed or long sort of approach. As I said, it could just be taking notice, and being someone that cares about that child and make it known that you're, you know, available to them, if they ever want to talk. And that can make a huge difference in the young person's life.

Simon Currigan  25:44  

So when you speak to kids about their difficulties, and getting support in school, what makes the biggest difference to them in the way the adult responds?

Helena Kulikowska  25:51  

There are three key things that international research has shown help children, young people whose parents have a mental illness, build resilience, and those are having a good explanation. Having a good explanation helps the young people to make sense of their situation. It also helps to combat the negative misconceptions that exist around mental illness. So for example, can I catch a mental illness? or Am I responsible? Having a good explanation helps to combat those, it also makes the situation and illness less scary and frightening when you can understand it and make sense of it. And it also helps the young people to differentiate between their parents ill and well behaviours. Now you don't have to research and come up with your own explanation. There's lots of resources and videos on our website, there's a fantastic animation called Making Sense of mental illness, which is designed for children aged under 11, but actually could be used with children of all ages. So that's the first having a good explanation. The second is knowing you're not alone. As I said, a lot of the young people feel very much alone in the world, they think it's only me, it's only my family. So again, reassuring them that actually mental illness is very common. It affects lots of people. It's not just their family, it's something that affects very many of us throughout our lifetime, and helping the young people to access resources and support where they can understand that better and perhaps connect with other young people in a similar situation. And finally, it's having a neutral trusted adult to talk to. So that is somebody who is outside of the family or outside of the immediate family who is neutral to the family situation and can help the child or young person develop an objective view of their situation and support them to ask for help or access help if they need it. So that person can be a teacher or a member of staff.

Simon Currigan  28:10  

Helena How can our listeners find out more about your resources?

Helena Kulikowska  28:14  

They can go on our website, we have some fantastic free resources on our website. So our web address is And on there on our resources pages, you can find lots of information about this topic, you can find training for teachers and school staff and you can find resources that you can use with your children and young people. At the moment on our website. During the pandemic we developed four free modules to support schools with their COVID recovery curriculum. And we've done that for primary and secondary. We've also got lots of videos and supporting activity sheets on our website, and YouTube channel which you can use with your class. The young person comes to you and says, I want to know more about mental illness or my parent has a mental illness. Some of our videos are a really good resource to watch together in terms of helping the young person find out more and access information and support.

Simon Currigan  29:19  

And finally, we asked this of all our guests who's the key figure that's influenced you? Or what's the key book that you've read that's had the biggest impact on how you approach working with children?

Helena Kulikowska  29:29  

That's a really good question and a tough one. Well, I think the first person that came into my mind, I've already mentioned is my best friend who I've known for over 15 years. And yes, she had a very challenging time growing up and through speaking to her and hearing about her experiences. That's what sparked my interest in the charity and completely changed my attitude and approach to mental illness and I'm still learning but She's very inspiring and that despite challenges she's faced, she's an incredibly compassionate person and has gone on to do great things. And I think similarly to that my mother had a difficult home situation, not mental illness, but her father had substance misuse issues. And as a result, the family situation could be really difficult. And it was something that wasn't spoken about. And she experienced a lot of the shame and stigma and felt that she had to overcompensate with her mother to make up for the difficulties her father had. And she decided very, very early on that she would be a social worker. So she said, I can't necessarily help myself now. But in the future, I will be able to help other children like me. So that's always really stuck with me. And yeah, I love working in this field. And I hope to for for many years to come.

Simon Currigan  30:54  

This is a massive issue that somehow has managed to go under the radar. So I'd like to say thank you for bringing it to our attention and giving us some practical tips and strategies and ideas about how to support the children affected by the issue of their parents mental health. Thank you very much. 

Helena Kulikowska  31:07  

Thank you.

Emma Shackleton  31:09  

What I liked about that interview was Helena told us exactly what children affected by this issue need, according to the research, and then told us how to work with their natural resistance and give them the support that they need.

Simon Currigan  31:23  

This is such an important issue. So as a reminder, if you want more information about those resources, the charities name is Our Time, and its web address is And I'll put a direct link to the website in the episode description as well.

Emma Shackleton  31:42  

And if you work with kids with challenging behaviour, and you're not sure why they're acting that way, we've got a download that can help. It's called the SEN Handbook, and it will help you link behaviours you've seen in the classroom with possible causes like autism and ADHD.

Simon Currigan  31:59  

The idea here isn't for teachers to make a diagnosis, we're not qualified to do that. But if we link behaviours to possible causes quickly, it means we can get the right help and get early intervention strategies in place. It's a free download, go to the website Click on free resources that's near the top and you'll see the download there. I'll also put a link in the episode description as well. Basically everything is in the episode description.

Emma Shackleton  32:26  

Next week, we'll be looking at how early trauma or Adverse Childhood Experiences affect children's ability to regulate their emotions and behaviour, and what we as adults can do to support them. 

Simon Currigan  32:40  

If you don't want to miss that episode, you could get a tattoo with the exact time and date it's released. Or you could open your podcast app and hit the subscribe button. Or as it's now called in Apple podcast the Follow button. And this tells your podcast app to automatically download every episode as it's released, so you don't miss a thing. This method is quicker and easier than getting a tattoo and of course, you're much less likely to contract Hepatitis B.

Emma Shackleton  33:07  

Thanks for listening to this episode of school behaviour secrets. Have a great week and we'll see you next time. 

Simon Currigan  33:13  


Emma Shackleton  33:13  


(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)