Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) And its Impact on Children of Parents with a Mental Illness

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) And its Impact on Children of Parents with a Mental Illness

The most critical phase of development is from birth to age five, and what happens to children during this period will have a long-term impact on their mental health. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are stressful or traumatic events that occur in childhood. For example:

  • Being the child of a mentally ill parent
  • Being physically or emotionally abused
  • Lack of attention or abandonment
  • Growing up with parent(s) that misuse drugs and alcohol 
  • The experience of having a parent in prison
  • Parental divorce or separation 

How Common Are Aces in the UK?

Studies show that children's experiences of adversity last a lifetime and the more ACEs a child has, the harder it may be to overcome later in life. Prevalence of ACEs in the UK population:

  • Around half of the UK's population experiences at least one ACE, with about 9% experiencing four or more (Blackburn & Darwen Study).
  • An estimated 48 adults in England out of 100 have experienced at least one ACE during childhood. 
  • You can lose 20 years of life expectancy if you have six ACEs.

Statistics from Public Health England's report on adverse childhood experiences and their relationship with health-harming behaviors in England (BMC Medicine 2014).

Impact Of ACEs on Children

Studies suggest that children who experience stressful and traumatic events before age 18 are more likely to experience difficulties with their mental and physical health. 

ACEs have been linked to chronic illnesses, mental health problems, and autoimmune problems. There is a higher risk of adverse outcomes when a child has more ACEs. Increased ACEs can result in poor academic performance, underemployment, and unhealthy behaviours, including the misuse of drugs and alcohol. The increased risk of negative consequences associated with ACEs is nearly 50 percent attributable to these high-risk behaviours.

According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 5 of the top 10 leading causes of death are linked to ACEs. Among the diseases are respiratory and heart diseases, cancer, and suicide. Whilst there are other forms of ACEs, this article will focus on the prevalence of parental mental illness and the impact on children of parents with a mental illness.

ACE And Parental Mental Illness

Parental Mental Illness (PMI) is an ACE. The term ‘parental mental illnesses’ relates to parents or care givers with a mental health diagnosis, such as:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Personality disorders

Maintaining a job and running a household can be difficult for parents without a mental illness, let alone a parent with a mental illness. Disorders of mood, especially depression, panic attacks, and manic depression, can cause parents to lack the energy and capacity to connect appropriately with their children. Parental mental illness may also occur concurrently with other social difficulties like financial difficulties, relationship problems, family problems, housing difficulties. Coping with more than one problem may further impact on a parent’s or care giver’s ability to provide the level of care that their children need. 

The Impact of Parental Mental Illness on Parenting and Children

There are approximately  10 - 15% of children with a parent with a mental illness in the UK. Research shows that Children of parents with a mental illness (COPMI) are exposed to significant risk compared to children of parents without a mental illness. COPMI can be affected in a variety of ways:

1-Year-Old Babies

  • Parental inability to care and nurture
  • Absence of warmth
  • Responding negatively
  • Poor attachment

Young Children Aged 1 - 5

  • Problems related to behavior
  • Withdrawal symptoms and anxiety
  • Disruptive behavior
  • Anxiety and withdrawal from friends and family

For Adolescents

  • An increased risk of mental illness
  • Behavioral issues
  • Conduct disorder
  • Mood disorder
  • School challenges
  • Friendship difficulties


Difficulties that children of parents with a mental illness face

  • Confusion about what is happening to their parent
  • Blaming themselves for their parents’ mental health problem
  • Supporting a parent with their medication and/or personal care
  • Worrying about the next relapse or whether the ill parent will remain well
  • Responsible for the cooking and house chores
  • Emotional, psychological, or physical abuse
  • Separation from their parent if their parent is sectioned or unable to care for them
  • Societal and internalised stigma
  • Emotional difficulties like, worry, social anxiety and low self-esteem
  • Poor school attendance

In addition, it is not just people with a mental illness that experience stigma. Goffman coined the term ‘courtesy stigma’ in 1963, this is currently known as Stigma By Association (SBA) meaning that family members of a mentally ill person also experience societal stigma. Thus, children of parents with a mental illness may face stigma and may be impacted by the stigma experienced, fear of experiencing stigma and the internalisation of the stigma towards them and/or their parent(s). COPMI are likely to experience various types of stigma, including stigma of contamination- meaning the belief that the children can catch their parents mental illness; and stigma of blame- meaning that it is the child’s fault that their parent is mentally ill. Studies show that this can lead to children feeling embarrassed, shame and harbor the need to hide their parents’ mental illness.

The Charity Our Time Helps Children of Parents with a Mental Illness

Our Time charity, children of parents with a mental illness and ACEs

The charity Our Time supports thousands of Children and young people that live with a parent or guardian with a mental illness. Their purpose is to empower young people, give them a sense of belonging and assist them in addressing the problems that they face by working with educators, psychologists, and workshop facilitators. By supporting them in this way, COPMI can cope more effectively with their daily lives, build resilience, and stay mentally healthy.

Hundreds of people are supported by the workshops Our Time provides in England, Scotland, and Wales each year. It offers a supportive environment for young people to speak about their parents' illnesses, share experiences, and meet with friends. Campaigning for the cause is the cornerstone of Our Time's work.

Our Time offers many ways to get involved, whether you want to raise funds or share your story. It is possible to make a difference even by learning more about parental mental illness. There are various things that you can do to support, including:

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