POLYPHONYJournal of the Irish Association of Creative Arts Therapists

Review: Building Children’s Resilience in the Face of Parental Mental Illness

Published on Jan 14, 2020 by Nikki Roberts

Building Childrens Resilience

Building Children’s Resilience in the Face of Parental Mental Illness: Conversations with Children, Parents and Professionals, edited by Alan Cooklin and Gill Gorell Barnes, published by Routledge (2020), is compiled of thought-provoking contributions from children, parents and professionals who have been affected by, experienced and dealt with parental mental illness. The authors reveal and validate the importance of giving young people a platform to be regarded, heard and understood.

This book is an example of how a secure, personal scaffolding framework is necessary to allow a place for healing and forgiveness (of self and others). This is evident when one reads the accounts of the contributors, who write of their personal experiences and how powerful it is to have access to such a framework.

If we were to erect scaffolding around a building, it would allow us to create a safe framework for tradespeople to gain access for the required restoration work. As with any major renovation work, we will need a variety of tradespeople, with a select few to co-ordinate the project, such as a foreperson, an architect and a surveyor.  Each coordinator plays an important role, while working as a collective, in deciding which tradespeople will be needed to establish the most professional team. Some will be there for the whole job and some will come and go. In a similar manner, as this book unfolds it becomes clear, though reflection and acknowledgement of the transformation and learning accomplished on the journey, that when the scaffolding can ultimately be taken down, the therapeutic outcome becomes evident.

The most refreshing aspect of this book is the sense of hope and optimism held within its pages, while not trying to mask the sadness that erupts from the reality of living with parental mental illness. Its focus is on how to build the resilience of children through the shared responsibility of those within their family, local and wider communities, and identifying attainable resources as they construct their own scaffolding framework of support. There are many examples throughout the book from the contributors’ accounts of children, parents, educators and professionals. For example, Chapter 4, “Parental Mental Illness: The Worst Hurdles and What Helped”, by Kirsty Tahta-Wratih, and Chapter 12, “Keeping It Together: Championing Young Carers’ Rights and Raising Family and Public Awareness”, by Ambeya Begum.

Across these powerful chapters, there is an evident triangular relationship between children, parents and professionals, and the book allows conversations to take place between these groups, demonstrating their willingness to respond to what is being said. 

The benefits of providing appropriate targets and timed interventions that can positively impact resilience-building become apparent.  This approach allows the child to become a part of the installation of their own authentic scaffolding.

Although this book covers many resources, Kidstime appears repeatedly. Kidstime is a multi-family support group that was founded in the UK and has cast its net further afield to run programs in countries such as Spain and Germany. The Kidstime workshop is made up of a psychiatrist, a social worker, a drama therapist, a support worker and a family therapist. Multiple contributors in this book cite Kidstime as having a positive impact, allowing children to experience connection with other people. The reason it continues to be referenced in this book is because of one simple thing: It works! It offers a platform to provide a stage where the child can act as themselves rather than as an understudy for a member of their family unit. At Kidstime, children are heard, listened to, and considered. All people need to have their basic needs met and these three elements of being heard, listened to and considered can be superimposed over the aforementioned triangular relationship; for if we are not heard, not listened to and not considered, we become fearful. We may internalize or externalize that fear, but we cannot escape it, as it consumes our survival instincts. From start to finish, the authors investigate the fundamental need for a wholistic conservation to happen in order for the child to build their resilience from a place of hope.

This book explores the importance of the child having visual, tangible resources that are age-appropriate and simple to understand, enabling them to delve into the mind and the mental illness, and making the experience of living with parental mental illness less frightening for them.

It highlights the need for processing through creativity, drama and play that facilitates a strategy that is tailored to the child’s individual needs, where they can explore mental illness, what contributes to it and how others perceive it.

Throughout the book, the authors discuss the resources that can be accessed, in addition to Kidstime. Additional examples can be found in Chapter 10, “Storytelling and Drama”, by Deni Francis; Chapter 11, “The Journey of Young Carer to Doctor”, by Suhaib Debar; and Chapters 14 and 15, “Reflections of a School Nurse”, by Jessica Streeting and “School-Based Support”, by Anita Frier.

It became evident while reading and reflecting, that not knowing about or being denied the available resources had contributed to further and more intensive episodes of feeling helpless, alone, isolated or responsible for their parents’ actions and wellbeing, on the part of the children. In Chapter 10, “Storytelling and Drama”, Deni Francis delves into the therapeutic benefits of telling our stories; building resilience by exploring drama processes and techniques for empowerment. This chapter looks at the importance of developing critical thinking skills, including reasoning and logic, analysis and interpretation, reflection and evaluation. It is evident that these skills enable the children to integrate strategies that will help them deal with difficult situations and emotions. In an age where children are pressganged to project a perfect image of self and lifestyle, it is crucial they acquire such skillsets that enable them to create their own stories and reflections, which in turn, empowers them and decreases their feelings of shame and isolation. Ten-year-old Liam captures this perfectly: “We are all normal - in our own - way” (pg. 140).

This book eloquently explores ways of providing an environment where children can rebuild schemas of their parents and other adults as agents of support and trust. For example, in Chapter 4, “Parental Mental Illness: The Worst Hurdles and What Helped”, Kirsty Tahta-Wraith powerfully articulates her own fathers’ tribulations, which presented her with “hurdles” that she had to encounter, and shares how her own resilience and access to resources enabled her to meet them in a way that “shifted me from the ‘martyr’ narrative of focusing on the cost of my caring role, to celebrating my ‘hero’ role” (p.64). As an assistant psychologist (CAMH) she captures her own journey eloquently through the eyes of an adult, yet retains the essence of her childhood experience.                                       

Additionally, throughout the book, it becomes evident how parents who have experienced a mental illness, derive comfort and support from others, in the form of groups.  These groups provide a safe space where they can openly discuss the difficulties they encounter in their roles as parents, particularly in resuming these roles after a period of mental illness. It is crucial these parents have access to such groups, where they can rediscover their parenting skills and offer support and advice to others.

This book is an essential read for those interested in a new paradigm of co-creating a scaffolding where the voices of children of parental mental illness are fully heard, listened to and above all considered.

It is for those readers who are interested in the benefits of critical thinking skills and how this foundation helps children to engage with and understand explanations of mental illness. It is also a must-read for those who wish to explore areas of supporting parents with mental health problems.

Readers will include those in mental health, social and educational professions, as well as parents and children themselves. This book uncomplicates, yet still fully addresses fundamental knowledge about stigma, self-doubt, self-blame, anxiety and depression, thereby including the reader fully into the conversation. For those readers who are ready to explore and embrace the creative therapies, specifically drama as a powerful medium to engage with children, and the transformational process that is evident when they can simply be children, given permission to be free to laugh, play and dream, then this is the book of choice.

Nikki Roberts

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Nikki Roberts is an Art Psychotherapist and a member of IACAT (Irish Association of Creative Art Therapies), holding a First Class Honours Master's Degree in Art Psychotherapy. She is also an EMDR practitioner (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing). She is the creator and designer of the “I AM” Integrating Art & Mindfulness programme, including an online course, approved by the Department of Education. She is the author of two children's workbooks, a teachers’ resource book and a parent’s book, all published by educate.ie.

Nikki has worked in the field of mental health within the private and public sectors for the last 30 years and has facilitated hundreds of workshops working with individuals helping them to rediscover and develop their processing skills that allow for authentic self-worth and wellbeing. She works with children, adolescents and adults with mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, and specialises in the areas of trauma, self-regulation, resilience building, raising self-esteem, anger management, bereavement and social isolation.

Nikki is also a Consulting Hypnotherapist CH, NLP Practitioner (neurolinguistic programming), Energy Healer, Pranic Energy Healing, and is a Reiki Master, focusing her work in the areas of Sacred Geometry, Metaphysics and Quantum Physics. Her intention is to use these various modalities in conjunction with her theoretical training to offer a bespoke service that resonates with the individual or group to provide a therapeutic outcome.

Nikki is also the Creative Designer for Difference Days, an organization that facilitates corporate socially responsible events and has appeared/presented on Virgin Media’s “Renovation Nation”, BBC1 “Garden Invaders” and RTE “Nationwide”. Visit https://www.nikkiroberts.ie/