For my PhD dissertation, I studied posttraumatic growth in parents of chronically ill children – the idea that wisdom could grow from this unbelievable challenge. While my study focused on the themes of parents’ growth, one of the things that stuck with me is a rabbit hole of research I fell down while writing the literature review. I found it fascinating how intensely a parent’s functioning affects their child’s medical outcome. And I was equally amazed (though perhaps a bit less surprised…) at how much a parent’s physical and mental health is tied to their child’s functioning. Basically, science shows that the better a parent does, the better their child does – and in turn, the better a child does, the better a parent does.
It makes sense: the ability of a parent to cope with the severe trauma of a child’s injury, disability or diagnosis helps to determine how much support the parent will be able to offer the child in return – both in holding the child’s needs and in the extreme effort and endurance required to navigate complex medical systems. When parents are resilient, children heal.
And it makes sense the other way, too: When a child heals, it may be easier for the parent to be resilient.
But I just read a small study that poses a related question: How does a child’s mental health therapy influence a parent’s health?
I pose it as a question and not as results because the study is small. But still, I think it’s an interesting discussion: Does a child’s therapy affect a parent’s functioning? Before reading the study, I could have made an argument either way. On one hand, the fact that a child is getting professional help could let parents breathe a sigh of relief. On the other hand, I have seen parents who feel a sense of failure related to the fact that their child needs mental health support.
At least in this small study, all of the parents interviewed felt that their child’s therapy benefitted their own health. Specifically, they felt their child’s therapy was stress-reducing, empowering, demonstrated social support, and promoted the child-parent relationship.
What I take away from this is the idea that choosing to seek mental health support for your child might be the most emotionally challenging part. Once a child is in therapy, it seems to help not only the child’s mental health, but the well-being of parents as well.
Dr. Pikiewicz earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, CA. She completed pre-doctoral training at the Nan Tolbert Nurturing Center in Ojai, CA, and her post-doctoral internship at the Boulder Institute for Psychotherapy and Research. At both sites, Dr. Pikiewicz worked with a range of adult, adolescent and child clients in individual, couple, family and group settings. She also holds a B.S. in environmental science from Allegheny College and a teaching credential from Western Washington University.