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Growing Up With a Mentally Ill Parent: 3 Great Challenges

Research explores what kids find most difficult about parental mental illness.

Key points

  • Almost one-quarter of children worldwide are raised by at least one parent with mental illness.
  • Growing up with parental mental illness has an impact on the children themselves, their relationships, and their life circumstances.
  • The biggest challenge for children with mentally ill parents is times of emergency.

Research has found that being the child of a mentally ill parent is a tremendously difficult circumstance, and which typically has long-term effects. And even though an estimated 23 percent of children worldwide are being raised by a parent with mental illness, it is only recently that their experiences are receiving much-needed attention.

Overarching themes of parental mental illness

What are the greatest challenges of having a mentally ill parent? This was a question that a team of researchers led by psychologist Anne Faugli of the Vestre Viken Hospital Trust in Norway set out to explore in their poignantly titled paper, "'I have cried a lot': a qualitative study on children experiencing severe parental illness."

To that end, the investigators recruited a group of children who had a parent that was receiving inpatient or outpatient services for a severe mental illness. The sample consisted of 238 children, age 8 to 18, who were asked: "Please respond to the following question in your own words: What do you think is the most difficult challenge related to having a severely ill parent?"

After the interviews were completed, the children’s answers were coded and analyzed for themes. The following is a summary of their findings.

The overarching theme for the children’s experiences was "Drama of Life Unfoldment," which in turn broke down into three themes:

1. Impact on themselves. This theme referred to children’s descriptions of how having a parent with severe mental illness influenced them. It included how they were thinking and feeling, and how their demands and responsibilities changed as a result of having an ill parent. Many children reported that having a mentally ill parent was a strain cognitively, emotionally, and, for some, functionally. One participant stated:

"The huge load … that I feel that everything has happened to mommy. Generally speaking, that mom has not been ill just once but several times. I think this has been very unfair" (girl, 13).

2. Impact on relationships. This theme revolved around children’s descriptions of the ways in which their parent’s illness shaped their relationships with others, including parents, family, and friends. Consider the response of a participant:

"I find it very hard to relate to dad when he is down. He is very unpredictable and I never know when his mood will turn" (girl, 17).

Of note, the children also found it hard to share their difficulties with others, including their peers.

3. Impact on life circumstances. The theme captured the impact of their parent’s illness on their lives, with particular respect to their safety and security. The children spoke of difficult periods and moments as it related to their parent’s illness and the degree of social support and welfare that was available to them. As one participant put things:

"The hardest has been not to know for certain how this will turn out, and to experience that an illness can occur so sudden and change so much in so short time…" (girl, 17).

The biggest challenge of parental mental illness

Faugli and her collaborators conclude their article by emphasizing that the children’s greatest challenge was in times of emergency, and if they are not properly supported during such episodes, it could have deep and long-term consequences.


'I have cried a lot': a qualitative study on children experiencing severe parental illness

Anne Faugli 1, Elin Kufås 1, Magne Haukland 2, Ellen K Kallander 3 4, Torleif Ruud 4 5, Bente M Weimand. 'I have cried a lot': a qualitative study on children experiencing severe parental illness. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences.