Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Child Development

What It's Like to Grow Up with a Mentally Ill Parent

A recent study reveals the experiences and legacies of parental mental illness.

Key points

  • Parental mental illness can prevent children's existential, educational, and emotional needs from being met.
  • Parental mental illness can lead to children's difficulties with trust and mental health in adulthood.
  • These children rely on perceived control to realize personal growth, self-care, and caring for others.

What is it like to grow up with a parent who is seriously mentally ill?

This was the central question of a recent study led by Alexander Shestiperov of Ben-Gurion University. Children who have a seriously mentally ill parent are often exposed to symptoms and situations that overwhelm their nascent resources. These can involve verbal, physical and sexual violence, psychosis, and suicidality.

In order to better understand the lived experiences of children who contend with serious parental mental illness, Dr. Shestiperov and his team recruited adults through relevant Facebook groups. In the final tally, there were 30 participants, ranging in age from 20 to 55, with parents who were hospitalized at least twice during their childhood due to the severity of their impairments. The investigators administered semi-structured interviews and analyzed them for themes.

The results were striking. The participants’ narratives identified the overarching theme of transition from childhood survival to adulthood survival, which in turn broke down into four main themes that are summarized below.

Theme 1: A traumatic childhood. Participants recounted neglect wherein their parents’ mental illness prevented their existential, educational, and emotional needs from being met. A participant shared: “This was my existential experience, a kind of orphanhood, even though both my parents were alive, I met orphanhood from both and tried to find strength”.

They also described their childhoods as abusive and cited experiences of material, physical, and verbal violence.

Theme 2: Perceived Control. Interviewees recalled that as children they faced challenges that forced them to grow up too soon. With parents who were unable to be present and involved, they developed coping and survival skills to navigate their difficult circumstances. More specifically, they relied on perceived control — the belief that one has the ability to gain control over a situation — in order to realize personal growth, self-care, and caring for others.

The interviewees also shared that they developed a “false self” to fit in or to please others. In efforts to adapt to their situations, they had to deny their own true feelings and desires — which extended into adulthood. A participant remarked:

“[I need to] stop pleasing and doing what I think I should, whether it's the way I act in my parenting, the way I choose my profession, or how I work in my job.”

Theme 3: Resilience and general self-efficacy. The adults in this study reported the emergence of resilience and general self-efficacy in the transition to adulthood. It helped them increase their social station and fortify family bonds. They also felt compelled to establish emotional and social fulfillment in safe situations. A participant reflected:

“It made me stronger (...) I'm not a person who gives in very quickly to difficulties (...) I will progress despite difficulties. I am also very calculated for my future (...) also financially. I have been working as if from a relatively young age”

Theme 4: Adult quality of life. This theme traces back to the participants’ childhoods, in which they were plagued with feelings of loneliness and being burdensome. But it was hard for them to ask for help or treatment because they didn’t want to come off as needy or unwell themselves.

Participants' self-reliance in childhood often led to later difficulties with trust and mental health in adulthood. They found it very challenging in later life to seek help for their own mental health challenges: “It's a situation that is very difficult for me (...) my automatic reaction is reluctance”

Yet some participants found satisfaction in their relationships and families. Their experiences with parental mental illness motivated them to be a better parent to their children than their own parents were to them. This driving force in part led to their decision to have a child, and lent meaning to their experiences with having a seriously mentally ill parent: “I will give my children love and all that I didn't get.”

Facebook image: 1st footage/Shutterstock


Lived experiences: Growing up with a seriously mentally ill parent. Alexander Shestiperov, Orli Grinstein-Cohen, Deborah Lindell, Elliane Irani, Ilya Kagan. J Nurs Scholarsh. 2024 May;56(3):357-370. doi: 10.1111/jnu.12955. Epub 2024 Jan 2.

More from Vinita Mehta Ph.D., Ed.M.
More from Psychology Today