Children living with a mentally ill parent

By Jaimie Byrne

Often when a family member comes for counseling due to the mental illness of a loved one, they are trying to find solutions and strategies to get their loved one to accept their illness, take responsibility for their actions or get into treatment; when this does not happen naturally in families where a mental illness exists, the home can become quite chaotic, disorganized, and filled with tension. Spouses often find it extremely frustrating and taxing when their ill partner is unable to seek help for their illness and consequently is also unable to contribute to chores, child rearing, family events and daily routines.

Parents of adult children with a mental illness will often extend the duration of their parental responsibilities such as providing room and board, taxiing to doctor’s appointments, raising grandchildren and providing financial support. When a family environment becomes chaotic, we sometimes go into survival mode and try to cope as best we can from day to day. Often we try to hide this chaos from the children involved; we try to shelter them as best we can in order to protect them. Unfortunately these days our children are learning very quickly and are very intuitive. This can make it very difficult for a parent or grandparent to hide the mental illness from the child.

What to do then?

How do we help our children so that they can cope with the illness in the family without hiding it from them?

Difficulties for Children

The majority of children who have a parent with a mental illness find it difficult to cope because they do not have the maturity and coping tools to deal with certain complex situations. Often children are faced with

• Being separated time and again from a parent that needs to be hospitalized for treatment or that is unable to provide consistent care.

• Feelings of insecurity and anxiety due to the unstable relationship with their parent.

• Not being properly looked after.

• Maltreatment and abuse.

• Becoming parentified by having to take care of an ill parent or younger siblings.

• Feelings of worry, fear or shame because of their parent’s illness and behavior.

• Teasing or bullying by other children

• Hearing unkind and upsetting things about their ill parent.

When a child is faced with these situations and feelings and has not yet learned appropriate coping tools to deal with them, a number of problems may arise. Often children will withdraw and isolate themselves as they develop feelings of anxiety faced with an unpredictable environment. These children may also find it difficult to concentrate on a task or on school work due to their anxiety levels. Children can also develop behavior problems when faced with situations and feelings that they are not prepared for.

Children will often learn maladaptive behaviors and coping tools from their ill parent (i.e.: temper tantrums, hitting, lying, bullying, manipulation, etc…) Children may also feel anger or frustration due to their family situation which can be exhibited in physical or verbal aggression.

Problems that children may develop

• Behavior problems

• Anxiety

• Confusion

• Role reversal/ Parentification

• Attachment issues According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, “Children of parents with mental illness are at risk for developing mental illnesses, particularly if both parents are mentally ill.” ” The risk for developing a psychiatric illness may be even greater if a parent has Bipolar disorder, an anxiety disorder, ADHD, schizophrenia, substance use disorder, or depression, or if the child’s family environment is inconsistent and unpredictable.” The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter (2003).

There are many contributing factors to a child’s outcome, if a child has a parent with a mental illness; they are surely at a higher risk for developing problems due to the instability and emotional rollercoaster that they may experience in their childhood. As many of our members can attest to, living with someone with a mental illness can be quite a challenge; however when we have a set of tools and knowledge to work from, the daily challenges can be more easily managed.

What can I do to decrease risk factors for my child?

Provide Knowledge: The most important thing a family member can do for a child that has a parent with a mental illness is to educate the child on the illness. Children develop anxiety and worry when they observe behaviors that are unusual. Explaining to a child that a parent has these behaviors due to an illness and that there is nothing to be scared about will help to ease anxiety.

There are many resources for parents on how to talk to your children about mental illness; these can be very helpful when trying to find the appropriate words to use. Remember that mental illness is an illness like any other and many children can relate to being sick.

Provide a stable environment: It is often very difficult to provide a stable environment when one parent is unpredictable and schedules are continually being challenged and changed. It is important to try to provide predictability for a child; to commit to a routine. Children need a sense of predictability to feel secure and to develop an innate sense of security in life.

Seek psychotherapy: Seeing a professional on a regular basis can be quite helpful to not only the child but to all family members. Having a designated, impartial person to talk to and to work out our difficulties with can be extremely beneficial. Children can feel supported and understood as they work through their more difficult feelings associated with having a parent with a mental illness.

Nurture the relationship with the ill parent: It is extremely important for children to have a positive connection with their parents. Often when a parent is unable to properly care for their child due to their mental illness, the relationship becomes strained. Children can become fearful or anxious around their ill parent and even feel unloved. It is important for the caregivers to make extra efforts to maintain the relationship between parent and child, so that the child can grow up feeling secure and loved.

Maintain a strong relationship with a healthy adult: When a child experiences instability due to a parent’s mental illness, it becomes important for the child to have appropriate role models. If a parent is unable to provide a sense of security for their child or to attend to their emotional needs appropriately, having a stable and secure relationship with another adult can help the child to develop a sense of security and more easily be able to separate a parent’s behaviors due to the illness from negative feelings towards the child.

Healthy peer relationships: It is helpful for children to have healthy friendships with their peers for many reasons; they learn negotiation skills, they learn how to be in a peer relationship as opposed to a parent/child relationship and they develop trusting bonds that will help them to cope through difficult times.

For children of parents with a mental illness, it often helps to observe and interact with their friends in order to develop a more encompassing view of the world than they would have if kept isolated.

Foster healthy interests outside of the home: Often children of parents with a mental illness are not adequately socialized with peers and rarely have the opportunity to partake in sporting events or cultural activities on a regular basis due to lack of organization or chaos in family functioning. It is always important for children to develop their personal interests outside of the family in order to learn how to properly separate and develop a strong sense of identity and self.

Children can also learn tools to cope with their daily environment and the stresses of living with a parent with a mental illness. As with any difficulty in life, it is much easier to deal with once we understand it fully and then learn to deal with it appropriately.

References Helping children and teens living with mentally ill parents. (2002).

Brown University Child & Adolescent Behavior Letter, 18(7), 1. Leschied, A. W., Chiodo, D., Whitehead, P. C., & Hurley, D. (2005).

The relationship between maternal depression and child outcomes in a child welfare sample: implications for treatment and policy. Child & Family Social Work, 10(4), 281-291. Orel, N. A., Groves, P. A. & Shannon L. (2003).

Positive Connections: a programme for children who have a parent with a mental illness. Child and Family Social Work, 8, 113-122.