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One in three children lives with a parent suffering emotional distress

A third of children live with a parent suffering emotional distress – the highest proportion on record, official data shows

  • The likelihood was higher when a parent or both were unemployed
  • Children were more likely to live with an emotionally stressed mother than father
  • Mental health conditions in the home can affect children in later life, experts said

Almost one in three children (29 per cent) are living with a parent with emotional distress – the highest proportion on record, data show.

This is up from the 27.3 per cent recorded by Public Health England in 2010, when the set of statistics began.

The figures show a strong link between unemployment and the likelihood of living in a home with a distressed parent.

Emotional distress is a snapshot that indicates mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression. 

Growing up around parents in this situation can be potentially dangerous for the child’s mental health later in life, experts say.

Almost one in three children are living with a parent suffering emotional distress – the highest proportion on record, data from Public Health England shows

The PHE analysis found that 29 per cent of children in the UK are living with at least one parent reporting symptoms of emotional distress. 

The data was taken from a study of around 40,000 households in the UK for 2016 to 2017. 

Mothers are much more likely to report emotional distress, with more than one in five (22.3 per cent) children living in a household where the mother was suffering.

The figure for mothers is up from 20.2 per cent the year before and the highest on record. 

It compares with around one in eight (12.1 per cent) children living in households where it was the father who was distressed.

In some households, both parents are reporting emotional distress.

Around half of all children (50.6 per cent) living in families where neither parent was in work had at least one parent reporting symptoms of emotional distress.


Nine per cent of those born in the early 1990s had suffered depression by 14, against 15 per cent for those born at the Millennium, research has found.

Rates of self-harm went up from 12 to 14 per cent between the two groups.

Teenagers today drink less, take fewer drugs, and are less likely to be vandals or violent than their elders of just a decade before.

But instead they are more likely to suffer from depression or obesity, to sleep badly, or to engage in self-harm.

The shift in the behaviour between two generations of 14-year-olds just ten years apart may illustrate the impact of social media. 

Known variously as the Facebook Generation or Generation Sensible, they have much lower levels of drinking, smoking, drug-taking or teen pregnancy than their predecessors.

But several research projects have already suggested that they have become the loneliest age group, more likely to feel isolated and alone than older people and pensioners.

The new evidence compared the behaviour of 5,600 children born in the Bristol area in 1991 and 1992, and the contrasting lives of 11,000 children born across the country in 2000 and 2001.    

This compares with 26.4 per cent of children living in families where at least one parent was in work.

For lone-parent families where the parent was not in work, 37 per cent of children had their parent reporting distress, compared to 34.2 per cent if they were working. 

A Public Health England spokesperson said: ‘Parental emotional distress can lead to mental health problems including anxiety or depression.

‘It is associated with an increased risk of later behavioural and emotional difficulties in children.’

The analysis showed that children were more likely to live with a parent reporting emotional problems if both parents were out of work.

Previous research shows employed adults are less likely to have a common mental health problem, such as depression or anxiety, than those who are unemployed.

While around 14 per cent of adults in full-time employment had a common mental health problem, 29 per cent for those who were unemployed do, according to figures from the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey.   

Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chairwoman of the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: ‘Mental distress among adults is clearly on the rise and we cannot underestimate the impact this has on the children who are close to them.

‘Not every adult with emotional distress will have a mental health disorder, but many will. If we can treat their illness early, this could have significant positive effects on the wellbeing of their children.

‘Professionals working with adults who have mental health problems need to be aware of the impact this might have on their families, who may also require support.’

Children of parents with a severe mental illness may experience similar issues because their inherited genes make them more vulnerable to mental ill health.

But it could also be because of their situation and the environment in which they are growing up, charities say. 

Tom Madders, campaigns director at youth mental health charity YoungMinds, said: ‘The circumstances that young people grow up in can have a big impact on their mental health.

‘As a society, we need to get much better at identifying when seemingly “difficult” behaviour in young people may be a reaction to difficult experiences. 

‘All professionals who work with children need training about the effect of trauma on behaviour, so that they can identify the signs and ensure that vulnerable children can get the best possible support.’ 


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