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Child Development

The Lasting Effects of a Childhood with a Mentally Unwell Parent

A new study reveals the toll of parental mental illness.

Key points

  • Almost one-quarter of children worldwide are raised by at least one parent with mental illness.
  • Children may fear their mentally unwell parent, and new research suggests they are in constant search of security.
  • Many adult children are in conflict over feeling responsible for their ill parent and striving for their own self-fulfillment.
altanaka/Shutterstock
Source: altanaka/Shutterstock

Remarkably, an estimated 23 percent of children worldwide are being raised by at least one parent who suffers from mental illness. Yet it is only in recent years that researchers and clinicians have been giving this widespread phenomenon its due attention. For some of these children, their lives can be filled with fear, unpredictability, and an ongoing search for security. They may grow up feeling invisible and bear invisible wounds.

How does growing up with at least one mentally ill parent affect a person over the course of their life? This was the focus of a study conducted by Deborah Metz and Johannes Jungbauer of the Institute of Health Research and Social Psychiatry in Germany. More specifically, the investigators were interested in how adult children made sense of their childhood experiences and the long-term effects that parental mental illness had on their life journeys.

In order to investigate the long-term effects of parental mental illness, Metz and Jungbauer recruited and interviewed 18 participants. The participants were between the ages of 26 and 64, and consisted of three men and fifteen women. Thirteen participants grew up with a mentally ill mother, three with a mentally ill father, and two with both parents with mental illness. Their parents’ diagnoses ranged widely, and included schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and alcohol addiction.

All participants were asked the general question: “What were your childhood experiences of growing up with a parent with mental illness?” From there, the researchers asked follow-up questions about the participants’ personal journeys. After the interviews were complete, the narratives were analyzed and coded.

What did Metz and Jungbauer find? The participants shared that the effects of parental mental illness had a major influence on their development and lives. The following is a selective overview of their findings.

1. Childhood Experiences

All of the participants recalled their childhood as one full of stress and strain. They often felt insecure and confused because they could not make sense of their mentally ill parents’ actions and behaviors. As children, they did not have the ability to understand the illness and the "peculiarities" that can accompany such conditions. They had little security in their homes and felt powerless in the face of their parents’ moods and behaviors.

A core emotion for all participants growing up was fear. Many children were scared of being separated from their mentally ill parent or losing them altogether. As one participant stated:

“I always thought that she could either have a fatal car accident, be attacked, or disappear without a trace. Besides, she talked often enough about killing herself.“ (46-year-old daughter of a mother with borderline personality).

2. Developments in Adolescence

As the participants grew from children into teenagers, the stresses and strains caused by their parent's mental illness continued. In particular, they often felt tasked with having to parent their parents. The participants described feeling overwhelmed by the responsibilities and duties of being “parentified children,” which left them feeling lonely and helpless.

Of note, many participants experienced a conflict between having an autonomous self and bearing responsibility for their mentally ill parent. Some participants stayed close to their parent's home, even after moving out, to help their parents when needed. Others desired autonomy and moved away usually to further their education. One participant reflected:

“I felt a tremendous relief when I was able to go to vocational school in a new city because, for the first time, I was able to escape the atmosphere in my family and my feeling of stigmatization by others, nobody knew my past there. It felt like a new chance, a new beginning for my life.” (42-year-old daughter of a mother with obsessive-compulsive disorder).

3. Personal and Family Issues in Adulthood

Unsurprisingly, the burdens of their parent's mental illness did not naturally fade out once the participants grew into adults. Quite the opposite, these adult children were faced with even more intense challenges in both managing their parents’ conditions and developing their own lives.

The majority of participants had to navigate assuming responsibility for their ill parent and striving for self-fulfillment. This burden was especially difficult when their parents were experiencing acute episodes of their illness. One participant remarked:

“When I was 36 years old, my mother called me early in the morning. I immediately felt that she had another psychotic episode. This hit me completely unprepared, and I had the feeling that the rug was pulled from under my feet. The whole drama of my childhood speeded at me again like a train. That was awful, like a flashback. I had the feeling that all my burdensome childhood memories were catching up on me with great force. Images in my head that I had completely repressed flooded me.” (64-year-old daughter of a mother with schizophrenia).

Many participants felt, even in adulthood, that they had no right to lead their own lives, but rather had to care for their ill parents. While some participants expressed anger at the realization that their needs as children went unmet, others conveyed positive feelings towards their ill parent, including gratitude and love.

Metz and Jungbauer conclude their paper with some recommendations about useful approaches to therapy for adult children coping with parental mental illness, which I will cover in an upcoming post.

Facebook image: altanaka/Shutterstock. LinkedIn image: KieferPix/Shutterstock

References

“My Scars Remain Forever”: A Qualitative Study on Biographical Developments in Adult Children of Parents with Mental Illness. Deborah Metz and Johannes Jungbauer. Clinical Social Work Journal (2021) 49:64–76 https://doi.org/10.1007/s10615-019-00722-2

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