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How To Support A Parent In Emotional Distress – As Nearly A Third Of Children Are Impacted

HuffPost UK logo HuffPost UK 20/03/2019 Natasha Hinde

© Getty Almost one in three children lives with a parent suffering emotional distress – the highest figure since records began in 2010, data shows.

This can lead to mental health problems such as anxiety or depression for the parent, according to Public Health England (PHE), and is also associated with an increased risk of behavioural and emotional difficulties in children.

The analysis by PHE found that 29% of children in the UK are living with at least one parent reporting symptoms of emotional distress – and mums were particularly feeling the strain. So what can family members and close friends do to help?

Mums are more likely to experience emotional distress, with more than one in five (22%) children living in a household where their mum was suffering. This compares to around one in eight (12%) children living in households where the father was distressed.

A woman in streetcar alone and depressed © Getty A woman in streetcar alone and depressed The data, taken from the ‘Understanding Society’ study of around 40,000 households in the UK for 2016 to 2017, found around 3.6% of children live in a household where both parents are in emotional distress.

This news should be a “wake-up call” to the world, Emma Kenny, psychologist for, tells HuffPost UK. “The family – in all its diverse formats – should be the heart of the home and provide love and security for a child,” she says. “But if a parent is in emotional distress, they may find it hard to function as a person, let alone a parent.”

Without proper help and support, this could have a long-lasting impact on a child. “As a society we have to come together and tackle this to ensure the mental wellbeing of future generations,” Kenny says. 

Gallery: 19 Natural Remedies for Anxiety []

How To Support A Parent In Distress

:: Don’t remain silent. “It’s natural to feel that bringing up the issue of another person’s emotional distress may cause conflict, but it’s the only way to make a positive difference,” says Kenny. “Offering support can go a long way in reducing the overwhelming feelings of the individual who is struggling, and it means you can signpost them to agencies who can help.”

:: If you can give respite to the parent or child, then do so. “Very often people feel afraid to ask for support, especially when they feel they’re letting those they love down. Stepping in and providing some childcare so the parent can get some sleep, go for a walk, or meet up with their friends, means both parties benefit.”

:: Be strategic. “Sit down with the parent and ask them to list the things they would like to change so that they could be more present for their child,” she advises. This could mean helping them get their finances sorted, or identifying a local mental health support group they can attend. “Getting their needs down on paper and helping to mentor them through their worries will make a huge difference to their emotional state,” Kenny says. “Setting goals and breaking them into achievable milestones can be really helpful.”

Somerset, UK © Getty Somerset, UK

:: Delegate responsibilities. If you have friends and family available, speak to them about how you can all work together to cradle the parent through this challenging time, Kenny says. “You can all agree a weekly timetable that makes care manageable, or prioritise the immediate needs of the parent and each attend to the one you are most suited.”

:: Be patient. You might offer to help and find you’re ignored or rejected. It can be frustrating, says Kenny, but you should remember that emotional distress is, at times, overwhelming.

:: Remind them they are not alone. Encourage the parent to share their feelings on an online mental-health support group.

:: Know when to get help. No one wants to breach confidentiality, and when we love people we don’t want to cause them harm. But if a child is at risk, being neglected or even being burdened emotionally by their parent, it is essential to put their needs first, says Kenny. Speaking to social services can be a “real game changer” that leads to struggling parents getting the support they need, she adds.  

Gallery: 31 Sleep Tips For People With Anxiety [Refinery29]

Useful websites and helplines:

Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393

Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)

The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email:

Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on


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