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A Guide to Understanding When A Parent Has a Mental Illness

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, 9.8 million Americans aged 18 or older, or 4.2% of adults, live with a severe mental illness such as schizophreniabipolar disorder, or major depressive disorder. These and other mental illnesses may affect parenting and child welfare, including obsessive-compulsive, psychotic, panic, and post-traumatic stress disorders.

In general, two-thirds of females, and one-half of males who have a severe mental illness, will become parents. Joanne Nicholson, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth Psychiatric Research Center, states, “There’s a significant number of individuals with some level of emotional distress who are raising children.”

Parents suffering from mental illness may leave their children struggling with:

  • Physical impairment
  • Emotional instability
  • Social interactions
  • Feeling guilty
  • Low self-esteem
  • Finding and keeping a job
  • Personal relationships
  • Parenting their own children

Many children are resilient and will not face any of the above challenges. And many individuals who battle mental illness become loving and stable parents. Treatment for mental illness can make or break the outcome of parental mental illness on children.

What is Mental Illness?

Mental illness is a health condition that involves changes in emotion, thinking, and/or behavior. It can cause problems in all aspects of a person’s life, including social, work, and family activities. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. Individuals seek treatment for medical problems such as heart disease and diabetes; mental illness is a disease that needs medical treatment.

Mental health is common, and every year:

  • Almost one in five adults in the United States experience some form of mental illness.
  • One in 24 adults in the United States is diagnosed with a serious mental illness.

Mental illness is treatable, and many adults who seek treatment continue to lead productive and positive lives.

Mental illness can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, income, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other cultural identity. Even though mental illness can occur at any age, most mental illnesses begin by the age of 24. Some forms of mental illness can be mild and cause minimal interference with life. Other mental illnesses can be severe and require hospitalization.

Understanding Parents with Mental Illness

A parent with a mental illness can leave their children angry, helpless, and embarrassed. Young children are confused about the way their parent is acting. Teenagers are just mad and embarrassed at their parent’s behavior, while some adults walk away from their parents.

Communication is the key to understanding a parent’s mental illness. Whether the child talks to the parent, family member, or therapist, it doesn’t matter as long as there is communication. Thoughts and feelings kept inside only lead to more confusion and anger.

The information given about a parent’s mental illness is based on the child’s age and maturity. Teens understand that mental illness is a brain disorder but might receive wrong information from friends, the internet, or an angry parent. Teens might be less likely to talk about it than younger kids.

Children Will Often Withdraw From Friends and Family

Teens may not want to talk due to past experiences of aggression from the parent, embarrassment, or teasing from friends. Teenage children may have already built negative coping skills such as defiance, aggressive responses, or writing the parent off altogether.

Children of all ages are very aware when things are not fair. And having a mentally ill parent is unfair to them. It is crucial to acknowledge that unfairness. The feelings that accompany this unfairness are justified. But, the feelings are not an excuse to misbehave.

Children from young to adult need to talk about their feelings surrounding their parent’s mental illness. The anger and confusion don’t stop when the children of mentally ill parents become adults. Adult children who are still involved in their parents’ lives can feel an overwhelming need to take care of their parents despite the mental toll it takes.

The Impact of Mental Illness on Parenting

Mothers and fathers with a mental illness face all the same challenges as other parents. Their mental illness can inhibit their ability to find a balance and provide healthy parenting. For example:

A mother who is battling depression may find it hard to get up and get their kids to school on time. While a mother with severe depression may become less emotionally and physically involved in their kid’s lives.

A father with bipolar disorder may come home from work in a great mood and play with his kids. But, one little thing can set him off, and he starts yelling and scaring the children.

Parents with mental illness can put their children in situations that can be stressful, humiliating, and make them feel helpless. Most of these situations occur “behind closed doors,” meaning in the home away from others’ eyes.

Dr. Anne-Marie Conn from the University of Rochester Medical Center studied this phenomenon. She found the impact of a dysfunctional upbringing and the occurring psychological damage that occurs can be passed on for generations.

Does Having a Mental Illness Make My Parent Terrible?

Having a mental illness does not have to mean your parent is terrible. But, it can make it more difficult to parent in a healthy manner. Mental illness that is left untreated can negatively impact the parent and the child.

Parents with mental illness can find it challenging to carry out ordinary daily care of their children. Doing simple chores such as cooking, shopping, and cleaning can seem impossible. Without outside support to help with everyday tasks, children are left to do the “adult chores” in the house.

A parent with a mental illness may have trouble recognizing and supporting their child’s emotional needs. Some parents’ emotional needs with mental illness result in the children’s needs being overpowered and ignored.

Some mental illnesses, like psychosis and schizophrenia, can be scary. Parents can see and hear things that are not there. This can be very confusing and frightening. Children might blame themselves, thinking they did something wrong. Or they may be angry at their parent for not being “normal.”

Create Positive Factors When You are a Parent with Mental Illness

An unpredictable and inconsistent home environment can increase the chances of mental illness in children. Mental illness puts added stress on marriages and the ability to parent. All the added stress can harm children in the home.

Protective factors that parents can put in place to protect their children include:

  • Open communication – Children should know age-appropriate information about their parent’s mental illness. Children should also know that they are not at fault.
  • Outside support – If possible, a strong family support system is crucial to raising well-rounded children. Sometimes family is not able to be supportive on a daily basis, but there are other options. Neighbors, friends, and even community resources such as the Boys and Girls Club and Big Brothers Big Sisters can be a great support system for children.
  • Therapy – Individual therapy for children and family therapy can help establish a healthier household and mentally healthy children.
  • Reinforce positive self-esteem
  • Build healthy coping skills 
  • A strong relationship with a healthy adult
  • Keep children involved with friends
  • Healthy interests outside of the home

Unfortunately, parents with mental illness require a lot of attention. This leaves families and society ignoring the children in the house. It is vital for parents with mental illness to provide extra attention and support to the children and for therapists to also treat the children when treating the parents.

How to Deal With a Mentally Ill Parent

Many children grow up with mentally ill parents even if we didn’t know it. Anxiety and depression are common mental health issues that parents struggle with. Many mental illnesses, like anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, have strong genetic links.

Parents who seek treatment may live life with healthy coping skills. Children of these parents may have never have been exposed to the negative effects of mental illness. Unfortunately, not all parents receive treatment.

If an individual grows up with mentally ill parents, it can be challenging to deal with them. Children of mentally ill parents see pain, suffering, and sometimes mental and physical abuse. Being raised in a negative environment can have lasting and devastating effects. But it doesn’t have to.

Here are some tips on how to deal with mentally ill parents while protecting your own mental health.

  • Go to Therapy
  • Seeking therapy with a caring and nonjudgmental therapist can help individuals understand and empathize with mentally ill parents. Evaluating and making sense of a person’s childhood experiences can be invaluable in creating a healthy life
  • Practice Meditation and Mindfulness
  • A person’s thoughts play a significant role in how they view their life. When children are dealing with a mentally ill parent, they blame themselves, hate their parents for being sick, and worry that they will suffer mental illness themselves. It is essential to be mindful of these thoughts and give them the attention they deserve. These thoughts can negatively impact a person’s future. Meditation is a wonderful tool to help clear these thoughts out of mind and restore peace and balance.
  • Acceptance of Parents with Mental Illness
  • Accepting a mentally ill parent does not mean accepting the way they treat their children. As they grow up, some children do not keep in regular contact with their parents for their mental health. And some children grow up and find healthy ways to stay in touch with their parents. This is a personal choice. It can be difficult for children, even as adults, to not feel responsible for their parent’s actions.
  • Boundaries
  • To break the cycle of mental illness in a family, there must be boundaries. Most parents with mental illness have a difficult time listening and upholding boundaries that are set. Stick to your boundaries; be clear that it is for your mental health.

Educate Yourself

It is very empowering to be educated about the mental illness your parent battles. This helps a person understand the causes, triggers, and the best treatments available. This also helps the children of parents with mental illness know what to look for in themselves.

Believe in Yourself

Many children who grow up in homes with mental illness are told they are worthless, damaged goods, and blame for everything. Even though it is not true, it is what they grow up believing. These thoughts keep many individuals from growing into healthy adults.

You are not those words. It is crucial to be gentle with yourself as you work through the traumas and negative moments of your life. It is possible to break-the-cycle of the negative effects of mental health.

Supportive People

Research has shown that children of mentally ill parents survive childhood by having supportive teachers, friends, and other adults. As an adult growing up with mentally ill parents, people may find themselves picky about their friends. A strong support group can make dealing with a mentally ill parent less of a mental toll.

Practice Prevention

Individuals who grew up in a home with a mentally ill parent need to be highly aware of the signs of mental illness. Taking preventative measures to control any issues is vital. Creating daily self-care rituals can help individuals be mindful of any mental health changes they may experience. Some self-care rituals include:

Building a healthy and happy life when you are a child of a mentally ill parent is a process. The damage was not done overnight, nor will it be repaired overnight. Be gentle with yourself and with your parents. Remember, mental illness is a disease; your parents didn’t ask to be sick. What your parents can choose is whether they get help or not.

Remember, your parent’s mental illness is not your fault. How you choose to deal with mentally ill parents is a personal choice that can only be based on your mental health. But, approach the topic of mental health from a place of compassion, understanding, and respect.

Do You Have a Parent with Mental Illness?

Are you struggling with how to deal with a mentally ill parent? Are you a parent with a mental disorder? At Montare Behavioral Health, our caring staff understands the ups and downs of parenting with a mental illness. Contact us today and find out how our mental health program can help you.