Almost a quarter of all children are being raised by at least one parent who has a mental illness. Children are often afraid of their mentally unwell parent and are mostly looking for protection. Many adult children are torn between feeling responsible for their sick parent and pursuing their own goals.

Parents and mental health

Surprisingly, an estimated 23% of children are raised by at least one parent who has mental illness worldwide. However, researchers have only recently begun to pay attention to this common phenomenon. Fear, unpredictability, and a constant quest for protection can be a part of some of these children’s lives. They can grow up with the feeling of being invisible and suffering from emotional wounds.

To investigate the long-term effects of parental mental illness, Metz and Jungbauer (2021) conducted research. They investigated how adult children made sense of their childhood experiences and the long-term effects that parental mental illness had on their life journeys. Participants who grew up with a mentally ill mother or father were recruited. Their parents’ diagnoses ranged widely and included schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and alcohol addiction. The consequences of parental mental illness significantly impacted the participants’ growth and lives. The following is a summary of their findings:

  1. Childhood experiences:
    All of the participants described their childhood as stressful and demanding. Since they couldn’t understand their mentally ill parents’ behaviour and attitudes, they also felt insecure and bewildered. They lacked the ability to comprehend illnesses and the “abnormalities” that can accompany such illnesses as infants. They felt helpless in the face of their parent’s moods and attitudes because they lacked protection in their homes. Fear was a common emotion among all participants as they grew up. Many children were terrified of being split from or losing their mentally ill parent.

  2. Development in adolescence
    The pressures and burdens induced by their parents’ mental illness persisted as the participants matured from children to teenagers. They also felt obligated to parent their parents in particular. The participants said they felt frustrated by the obligations and duties of being “parentified children,” making them feel alone and powerless. It’s worth noting that many participants struggled with the tension of having an independent self and being responsible for their mentally ill parent. Even after moving out, some participants remained close to their parents’ house to assist them when needed. Others craved independence and relocated, typically to further their education.

  3. Personal/Family issues in adulthood
    Their parents’ mental illness stresses did not naturally fade away as the participants matured into adults, as one would expect. On the contrary, these adult children were confronted with far greater difficulties in handling their parents’ illnesses and building their own lives. Most participants had to balance taking responsibility for their sick parent while still pursuing their own goals. This burden was made much more difficult when their parents were experiencing acute episodes of their illness.

As adults, many participants believed they had no right to live their own lives because they had to care for their sick parents. Although some participants expressed frustration at the realisation that their needs as children had gone unmet, others expressed appreciation and affection for their ill parent.

What can help children and young people?

  • Children must be given straightforward, truthful details about their parent’s mental illness; when children are told the facts, they report feeling less nervous. Children and young people constantly turn to the internet for updates on subjects they don’t want to share with their peers or other people.

  • Children can be better prepared for occasions when their parents are unavailable by creating an information sheet. It could be used to identify children’s daily/weekly activities and their (the parents) likes and dislikes. If parents follow this advice, children may have a sense of stability and consistency. It can also help parents feel in control of the situation and a sense of contributing to their kids’ well-being when they’re in the hospital.

  • Parents should write down what they find helpful and what they find unhelpful when they are feeling unwell. Children often retain this knowledge in their minds, allowing them to assume the role of caregiver for their parents without seeking outside assistance. Sharing a parent’s care needs with a trusted adult decreases the child’s risk-taking on insufficient caring duties and may help parents feel less guilty about being a burden on their children.

  • If a child visits their parent in an inpatient facility, it is important that whoever takes them should explain what to expect in advance – what the building looks like, how their parent can appear and act and medication side effects. Mental health facilities should include a family room where children can see their parents in a secure space away from the ward.

Counsellors at Halcyon Counselling Clinic are aware of the impact of growing up with mentally unwell parent/s has on children, young people, and adults. If you or someone you know is experiencing difficulty due to this reason, reach out and let’s work on it together.