Children of parents with mental health vulnerability: implications and family-centered support


  • Ana Fraga AIREV
  • Ana Maria Serrano Centre for Research in Education (CIEd), University of Minho
  • Susana Caires Centre for Research in Education (CIEd), University of Minho


World data shows that symptoms of mental health vulnerability in the population are increasing. This scenario leads to children growing up in contexts whose parents have mental health vulnerability. These children are known as “forgotten or invisible”. In Portugal, Early Childhood Intervention (ECI), based on family-centered practices, is the main support for these children and families. Nevertheless, the eligibility criteria for services include three risk factors additionally to parents mental vulnerability. This research aims to understand the family context of these children and find existing responses on supporting their development and parenting. Based on a qualitative methodology, semi-structured interviews were made to three mothers with depression, as well as to ECI professionals that support them. The results show that parental mental illness has implications on mothers, children, and the whole family system. It compromises the exercise of parenting, the misunderstanding of parental mental illness, the expression of negative feelings and parentification by children, making them vulnerable to mental illness. These families reveal a higher number of risk factors than protective factors, compromising family´s resilience. Results also demonstrate the need for ECI specialized professional preparation, since this study found gaps concerning knowledge on family-centered practices. Results also suggest the need of coordination between ECI and Mental Health and Psychiatry services, as well as the inclusion of parental mental illness as an independent eligibility criteria for ECI.