For children who grow up in the care of a mentally ill parent, life is often filled with anxiety, uncertainty and vigilance. It is not unusual for their needs to be neglected — and they may even have to “compete” with their parent’s symptoms in order to receive care themselves. It also poses risk factors for issues that can emerge later in life, including emotional and psychological disturbances, learning challenges, and poorer overall functioning. In addition, there are a host of social challenges that these children may encounter, such as social rejection, troubled relationships, marital problems, and family dissolution.
What are the core experiences for people who have been raised by a parent with mental illness? In a study led by psychologist Lynne McCormack of the University of Newcastle, she and her team interviewed adult children of an unwell parent, ranging from depression to schizoaffective disorder. They then analyzed the transcripts to see what salient themes would surface. The collaborators found an overarching theme — a fractured journey of growth to adulthood — which broke down into six core experiences. The following is a digest of their results.
Who cares about me? As children, the participants in this study were plagued by loneliness, vulnerability, and helplessness. They reflected on a childhood in which they felt unwanted, abandoned, and lost. At home they felt invisible. And the dysfunction of their home lives made them feel different and stigmatized in relation to their peers. One participant recalled, “There’s nobody in this world that loves me … I don’t have a mother’s love or a father’s love, or, family love, or… so it wouldn’t matter if I disappeared off the face of the earth.”
Trauma and betrayal. Surviving their childhood was a hard-won struggle for these participants, and many were heavily traumatized in their youth. Their familial environment was terrifying, and the chronic nature of this negativity exacerbated the effects of the neglect and abuse they endured. At the same time, they felt their other parent was helpless and unable to cope with the situation. The lack of parental care in childhood led to hypervigilance and extreme anxiety. Betrayal was also an important theme. Their parents failed to love, nurture, and protect them adequately. This, together with repeated instances of abuse and neglect, made it difficult to develop healthy self-esteem and a sense of self-worth — especially since the inaction of the other parent confused them. One participant stated, “Growing up with dad, I never felt secure…And I know that I have always been anxious, my whole life.”
Transferring the pain. Participants expressed feeling heightened guilt and sadness, accompanied by self-blame. Very often, information about their parent’s condition, including its cause and development, was withheld from them. This gave rise to confusion, shame, and the need for secrecy — further fueling their stress and anxiety. One participant recalled, “All I knew was um, my grandparents were telling me that mum’s sick and dad was telling me that mum’s sick and um, I was confused, because she didn’t look sick to me.” In addition, many participants feared passing on the illness to a future generation which played a role in the decisions they made about whether or not to have a family of their own.
Staying out of the way, and staying safe. The adults in this study had to navigate treacherous emotional shoals. Some became a “parentified child,” taking on a caregiving role that their mentally ill parent didn't assume - that they were children themselves was often overlooked. Others developed a suite of adaptive behaviors that kept them and their family members safe from harm. This often involved learning to please and fit in with others. The need for positive feedback, and modifying one’s behavior to attain it, became itself a crucible of sorts. As one participant put it: “I become very adaptable in different situations because I was always in such different environments…People always say oh you fit in so well here and it’s, it’s just something you learn because (laughs) that’s what had to happen.” While there was value in these adaptive behaviors, it also meant that the vigilant child within could not relax and give much needed focus to oneself.
Growing myself up. All of the participants reflected on the positive and negative facets of childhood experiences, and often found benefits, meaning, and opportunities for growth. Some found that it fostered empathy, compassion, and resilience. Others referred to their experience of having a mentally ill parent as “a blessing in disguise,” in which a broken self healed and became healthy. As the participants transitioned to adulthood, this phase of life allowed them to look back on their lives with their unwell parent and give new meaning to their experiences. Many described a process in which self-hatred transformed into self-acceptance. As one participant described it, “You work out why you’re doing the things you do and why you act the way you act - the penny drops and you really grow as a person. I’m just really blessed I suppose. Yeah I am, I’m really lucky.”
Transforming the broken childhood. Looking back on their struggle from childhood to adulthood, participants identified factors that helped them transcend their circumstances. For some, having exposure, however limited, to families without mental illness helped them to see a life beyond it. It gave them hope and optimism for a future that could be different. They also looked to education and employment as a road to independence and freedom from their families. Sometimes the pursuit of reaching impossibly high standards led to profound dissatisfaction with oneself in the — but school largely provided an escape from the distress at home. As one participant remarked, “One of my mottos is success is the best revenge. I just love learning and bettering myself and being independent.”
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Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. She provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults. She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, and recovery from trauma and abuse. She is also the author of the forthcoming book, Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.
A fractured journey of growth: making meaning of a ‘Broken’ childhood and parental mental ill-health. Lynne McCormack, Sarah White & José Cuenca. Community, Work & Family Vol. 20 , Iss. 3,2017