Growing Up with a Mentally Ill Parent

Being stuck in the past is not the same as making sense of the past.

Posted Nov 18, 2016

Some children grow up believing that the symptoms of mental illness that are evidenced in erratic and irrational parental behavior are “normal,” if they have no easily accessible external reference points. Other children, who are able to spend time in homes in which parents function well and the family hierarchy is in place in a “typical” structure, may recognize their family is not as “normal” as others families and they may seek out ways to spend time at the homes of their friends. Some children may take on the behaviors and beliefs of their psychologically distressed parents and act out the symptoms themselves. In families where the parents’ symptoms are the glue that holds the family together, children will enable the mentally ill parent and do what is necessary to keep the flawed system staggering forward. Leaving home as soon as possible is a goal that some children work hard to achieve – they can see what “normal” is and what “normal” is not and they are desperate to escape the unhealthy, unbalanced family system in which they feel trapped.

Even in adulthood, discussing mental illness in the family can be difficult. Some siblings would prefer to remain quiet about a loved one’s diagnosis while others may feel the need to share their experiences with one another and finally talk openly about a forbidden topic. Suggestions for addressing this topic include the following:

  1. Invite your sibling to share their own “childhood autobiography” and share your own.
  2. Talking about your own perspective, and listening to another’s, may allow siblings to piece together the family story more clearly
  3. Sharing with one another may help each sibling make sense of the overall “whole” of the person who was suffering from mental illness
  4. Research the relevant diagnoses and share your knowledge with your siblings. Being able to provide a fact-based explanation for the distressing behaviors may allow you to forgive your parent if you are still “blaming the patient” for the symptoms of the diagnosis.
  5. Opening up your relationship with siblings to allow open discussion of mental illness may provide the supportive environment for discussing any fears you and your siblings might have of developing the same diagnosis yourselves or any fears related to the genetic transmission of the illness.
  6. If your parent is still alive and still suffering from the same or a related illness, sharing knowledge with your siblings may help each of you establish a more satisfying relationship with your parents
  7. Remind yourselves that the stigma of mental illness is only reinforced if you and others choose to avoid discussion of this form of illness. By giving others permission to discuss the incidence and influence of mental illness in families, you are helping yourself and others to find new strategies for coping with the past and preparing, potentially, for the future.

Trying to pretend a parent’s mental illness does not exist or did not affect your childhood, when you bear the psychological and emotional scars yourself and in relationships, will not take away the power of the past to negatively affect your future. Facing the truth is difficult, but can open up new passages into honesty and authentic communications.