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When Your Parent Has A Mental Illness

Growing up in any family can be challenging at times, but there are often special problems and challenges for families in which one or both parents have a mental illness. Children in these families often have to deal with instability or unpredictability. Often there is confusion in family roles and children have to take over many of the adult responsibilities, such as taking care of younger brothers and sisters or managing household duties normally managed by adults. They may even have the responsibility of taking care of the emotional or physical needs of their parents.

Children in these situations do not always receive the parental care and nurturing they need. Often they feel ashamed to talk about their situation with others and consequently may withdraw from relatives or friends who could help them or support them. Often unable to articulate their needs, even to themselves, these children frequently feel isolated and alone.

Children of mentally ill parents may also experience added difficulties as adults. These may include:

Relationship difficulties

  • Difficulty in initiating relationships, and experiencing feelings of isolation
  • Difficulty in romantic relationships
  • Difficulty in maintaining friendships
  • Difficulty with trusting self and others
  • Difficulty balancing level of intimacy (excessive dependence or excessive avoidance)
  • Difficulty balancing taking care of self and taking care of others

Emotional difficulties

  • Guilt, resentment
  • Shame, embarrassment
  • Depression
  • Fear of inheriting parent’s mental illness
  • Fear of discovery by partner, friends
  • Inability to express anger constructively, angry outbursts or repressed anger
  • Confusion about one’s own identity
  • Negative outlook on life
  • Inability to deal with life unless it is chaotic or in crisis
  • Overly responsible or irresponsible in many areas of life such as commitments, money, alcohol, relationships, etc.
  • Self defeating thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors such as, “I don’t matter; I’m not worth much; It’s no use trying.”
  • Self defeating themes involving a tendency to equate achievement with worth as a person, such as, “Maybe I can matter if I can excel at something, be perfect in school, my job, my relationships. But if I fail, I’m worthless and it’s terrible.”
  • If you are experiencing any of these difficulties, you are not alone. It is helpful to recognize that these problematic feelings and behaviors helped you to cope and survive the more vulnerable years of childhood. Your recognition that they limit your life choices as an adult is the beginning of your search for more rewarding and functional ways of relating.

How You Can Help Yourself

Acknowledge that you have a parent with a mental illness and acknowledge the effects this has had on you.

  • Acknowledge previously inadmissible feelings such as anger, shame, guilt, etc.
  • Grieve the parental support you never received.
  • Remember that you are not responsible for causing your parent’s problems or for fixing his/her condition.

Develop new ways of taking care of yourself.

  • Recognize your own legitimate needs and begin taking care of them
  • Recognize the stressors in your life, and learn ways of managing them.
  • Replace negative thoughts with more positive statements: “I am a worthwhile person. This truth does not depend on my successes or failures. My life has ups and downs, but my worth does not change.”

Develop new ways of relating to others.

  • Recognize old unhealthy family patterns of communicating, and practice new ways of relating to parents and other family members.
  • Recognize the difficulties you have with relationships, and learn new ways of relating to others.
  • Appreciate and enjoy stability in your relationships, recognizing that relationships don’t have to be defined by crisis or dependency.

Explore other resources.

Educate yourself about your parent’s illness.

This can help you understand what your parent is facing and what has caused problems for your family. It can also aid in relieving your feelings of guilt, resentment, embarrassment, and shame.

Consider seeing a mental health professional.

A counselor can help you understand how your parent’s illness impacts your life. Also a counselor can help you learn healthier ways of relating to others and caring for your own needs.

Join a support group.

A support group that addresses your specific situation can help reduce feelings of isolation. Seeking such support can be especially helpful when family members are either uncomfortable with or refuse to acknowledge the problem.


Note: This document was created by the Counseling Center at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. It is published here with their permission.

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