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The Trickle-Down Effect: Children and Parent Mental Illness

unfair_0“You could run from someone you feared, you could try to fight someone you hated. All my reactions were geared toward those kinds of killers, the monsters, the enemies. When you loved the one who was killing you, it left you no options. How could you run, how could you fight, when doing so would hurt that beloved one? If your  life was all you had to give your beloved, how could you not give it? If it were someone you truly loved?”~ Bella Swan.

What is a child to do when mommy or daddy abuses, uses, or is dependent on drugs or alcohol? What does a child do when a parent has a mental illness such as depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, or a host of other maladies?

The trickle-down effect is most often associated with economics. Things that were once trendy become sold at bargain prices and they lose their trendy value, but become available to the masses who wildly consume these goods.

In psychology we look at how issues trickle-down. Parents often have issues and at the same time they have children. Their issues will trickle-down to the children. There are many ways this can and does happen.

Direct trickle-down. A direct trickle-down is when the substance using parent or parent with a mental illness doesn’t really hide what he or she is doing or what he or she is dealing with. It is common knowledge in the family that dad has a drug problem or mom has an alcohol problem or that uncle Henry has bipolar disorder. The children position themselves the best they can to develop defense strategies to cope with these things. A child will not be getting consistent needs met and will often be placed in harm’s way physically, emotionally, sexually, intellectually, socially, and relationally. It all depends on how proactive the family is with the children. It depends on honesty and skills offered to the child for how to cope and assurance that not of this is their fault.

The child will need to learn to adapt to this situation. The child may decide to use drugs or alcohol, once old enough to obtain these items (if not from the refrigerator or the medicine cabinet). The taboo against drugs and alcohol has been broken and once broken the substances are no longer feared.

The child who grows up around mental illness may be at risk in a number of ways. Children model parental behavior. If it is not explained that mom has a mental illness the child can take on certain aspects of that illness, at least in terms of normalizing certain behaviors, processing styles, or ways of viewing life.

The child may decide to withdraw into an inner world of pretend, imagination, imaginary playmates and parents, and leave the outer world, which has been deemed dangerous.

The child may decide they need to do something to rescue mom or dad. They becomes little rescuers and all that anxiety about worrying about what mom and dad are doing assumes the form of anxiety or an anxiety disorder. Anxiety also has another role. It can serve as a defense in itself against engaging in a life of his own as a child and later as an adult. Anxiety keeps the owner busy, so busy there is no time for a life. In addition, anxiety can act to ward off those pesky thoughts about wondering what the purpose is to life. Anxiety can assist in keeping someone from delving into thoughts about disappearing and being of no value to anyone or anything in life.

Indirect Trickle-Down. This is when the substance dependent or abusive parent hides the problem and instead disappears, displays anger, only appears during withdrawal, or is acting odd or scary but never owns up to the problem. This is when the parent with a mental illness does not get, seek, or want help. The problem is not theirs to deal with, rather the problem belongs to others. The child in this context is having his or her first course in psychopathology and diagnosis. This little person will spend enormous energy trying to figure out what is wrong.

Children influenced by the indirect trickle-down can also do a number of things in response. My experience is that until the problem is named and addressed children will become angry, irritable, and prone to all manner of acting out. They will do just about anything to shift the focus somewhere else. This shift of focus has a two-prong intent. One part is to be able to further diagnose the problem and the other part is to attempt to see if this person cares at all.

I frequently see children and teens begin cutting, begin a journey into eating disorders, and have problems focusing on school. They often associate with friends who are much older chronologically. They are also vulnerable to abduction and abuse by those outside the family due to the lack of connection to family. Depression and suicide are always risks as well.

If a parent has a mental illness and this includes substance abuse or dependence it is important to remember that children do not have skills for how to deal with any of this. If you are the aunt, uncle, grandparent, neighbor, or friend step up and be there for these children. It is OK to tell children their mom or dad is dealing with problems. It is OK to watch out for these children and certainly more than prudent to call in help if it is ever necessary.

Helping out a child is an investment in a life and the future. Helping out another is an excellent way to be in the world.

Children can do very well in a family where there is mental illness. It will depend on the mindfulness of the parents. Children can have problems in families where there is not the challenge of mental health concerns. All children need advocates.

Take care and be well.

Nanette Burton Mongelluzzo, PhD

Understanding Loss and Grief
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The Trickle-Down Effect: Children and Parent Mental Illness

Nanette Burton Mongelluzzo, Ph.D.

Nanette Burton Mongelluzzo, Ph.D. works in private practice as a psychotherapist. Nanette works with children, adults, adolescents, couples, and families. She also works as a consultant with public and private schools on issues ranging from suicide and violence prevention to topics on mental health issues affecting youth. She is the author of Entering Adulthood: Understanding Depression and Suicide, 1990,The Everything Self-Esteem Book with CD, 2011, and A Comparative Case Study of the Elderly Women Beggars of Central Mexico, 2006. She frequently appears on radio and television covering community mental health topics such as the Arizona wild fires in the summer of 2011 and the Gabrielle Gifford shooting in Tucson, Arizona.

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APA Reference
Burton Mongelluzzo, N. (2013). The Trickle-Down Effect: Children and Parent Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 28 Oct 2013
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