Guest blog by Joel L. Young, MD and Christine Adamec are coauthors of When Your Adult Child Breaks Your Heart: Coping with Mental Illness, Substance Abuse, and the Problems That Tear Families Apart. (Lyons Press, 2013.)
Slate.com recently published a heart-wrenching piece by Larry Lake about the trials and tribulations parents of addicts face. Lake points out that, when a child has cancer or a chronic illness, family and friends typically step in and bring meals and offer support. But if your child struggles with an addiction or mental illness, parents see their phones go silent, and no one brings meals by or offers you any support at all. You’re on your own.
Why? Because when adult or adolescent children are troubled, others may believe parents must have been at fault, somehow. They may also think they are being kind to the parents by avoiding this embarrassing subject. These mistaken beliefs can leave parents of troubled children floundering as they seek help and solace from others.
It’s Hard When People Ignore Parents with a Troubled Child
The grief caused by a child who harms people you love, nearly bankrupts you with legal or mental health bills, or abuses her own children can last a lifetime. This grief can be compounded exponentially by reactions of your family and friends. Parents of troubled adult children may face a range of unhelpful reactions, including:
- Blame, either direct or implied, for their children's problems
- Admonitions that the child needs religion, therapy, the right friends, a new spouse, or another silver bullet for all problems to dissipate.
- The assumption that you should fix the problem. Often others don't realize how challenging it is to help a troubled adult child while establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries.
- Complete abandonment by other family members embarrassed by the adult child's behavior or simply do not want to know about the cycle of destruction
- Shunning in the larger community. Parents may feel unwelcome at religious, work, or family gatherings.
The Toll of Unhelpful Bystanders
When your loved ones ignore you, enjoying a life outside your child's needs can be infinitely more challenging. Being the parent of a troubled child requires lots of energy and excellent mental health, while abandonment by your loved ones can be extraordinarily draining. Parents may struggle with depression, anxiety, and anger. They may feel a profound sense of shame or begin blaming themselves for their children's struggles. Avoid this negative spiral. One tactic to pull yourself up is to tell other people what you need. Maybe they won’t give it to you. But maybe they will.
How to Talk to Your Support Community
Lake's piece raises an important issue – whether, when, and how to tell your loved ones about a child's struggles. In many families, a child's emotional turmoil is no secret to those who have witnessed it for years. But parents, and you may be one of them, frequently take great pains to cover up their children's emotional problems and misdeeds.
No sure-fire method guarantees your support from friends and family. Consider the following tips for broaching a conversation:
- Frame your child's problems as a medical issue if they are caused by mental health disorders or substance abuse. Yes, drug addiction is a disease, as is bipolar disorder. Borderline Personality Disorder has been in the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Disorder since 1980.
- Discuss your own feelings (if you feel like sharing, and sometimes, you won’t) rather than analyzing minute details of your child's behavior.
- Explain there's no magic answer to remedy your child's behavior, and whether she uses available help to overcome them is largely up to her.
- Provide your loved ones with an explanation and/or educational materials about the specific issues your child struggles with. Maybe they don’t understand what schizophrenia is or don’t “get” borderline personality disorder. You can provide some basics. If your child has BPD, you might want to get them the short primer ABCs of BPD.
- Don't accept blame. If a loved one implies you've been a bad parent, consider saying, “I haven't been perfect, but research shows many people have these kinds of problems even when they had excellent parents.” We used to think that autism and schizophrenia were caused by hard, cold mothers! (Disclaimer: there is no doubt that some people with BPD had sad or even tragic childhoods. But we can't paint all parents with the same brush. We need to look at each case individually; in some people the genetic propensity to develop the disorder was paramount, and in other cases the main cause was environmental.)
- Tell the person you have done your best, and need emotional support to get through this hard time.
Asking for and Getting Support
Sometimes loved ones want to help, but are unsure of what to do. If your son is in jail or prison, they may avoid you because they don't want to embarrass you or force you to talk about uncomfortable issues. Consequently, it's important to ask for what you need. Maybe you just want to go out to lunch or for a walk in the park to distract you from your child’s problems and you’d like some company. If so, say so.
Don't be afraid to speak up (politely but firmly) if a loved one says something that hurts your feelings or misrepresents the problem. And if a particular family member is totally unsupportive and nothing you try works, stop talking to him about the issue. If he brings it up, say you don’t want to talk about that subject. And don’t.
If you don't have a supportive group of friends and family, all is not lost. Numerous organizations help parents of troubled children. Al-Anon aids families of individuals with alcoholism. Nar-Anon conducts daily meetings to support the loved ones of addicts, and their website can help you find a local meeting. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has local support groups, a crisis hotline, and dozens of resources for parents and family members of people struggling with mental illness. The NEABPD.org offers Family Connections. You can also join online communities at Welcome to Oz (acessed through www.BPDCentral.com) or www.BPDFamily.com. (See the the list or board for parents).
If your child is incarcerated, PrisonTalk offers a very active online support group. The Mothers of Incarcerated Sons Society offers a wide range of support options for parents of incarcerated children. Parents will also benefit from the booklet Hope for Parents.
Maybe nobody’s stopping by to bring you a pizza, quiche or salad--and some kind words--to help you through tough times you’re facing. If not, tell your family, friends and others how you feel and what you need. You may be surprised when some of them really do come through for you.
Joel L. Young, MD and Christine Adamec are coauthors of When Your Adult Child Breaks Your Heart: Coping with Mental Illness, Substance Abuse, and the Problems That Tear Families Apart. (Lyons Press, 2013.)