When a parent is mentally ill, children are often confused, scared, angry, and/or worried. Depending on their ages, how long the parent has been symptomatic, and experiences with Mom or Dad being sick, children need appropriate levels of education and support.
In this two-part blog, we’ll first look at how kids perceive, react to, and think about having a parent with a mental illness. In Part 2, we’ll discuss how to best help kids and offer resources.
How children may respond to having mental illness in the family
Some children will withdraw from the affected parent, pretending not to care or avoiding them in order to “protect” themselves. Younger children may fear that the illness is contagious and they will catch it; older children and teens may worry that they are predisposed to developing the illness themselves, or that their children someday may inherit the disorder.
Children may start to play certain roles in the family, in response to their parents’ illness. Some examples include caretaker, baby, mourner, patient, escapee, recluse, the “good” child, or the “bad” child. It is important that kids be allowed to be kids, and not have excessive or unrealistic responsibilities for caring for others in the family, whether that is the ill parent or other siblings.
Children may also feel as if they are to blame for their parents’ illness, and experience guilt and shame. Consequently, they may isolate themselves from peers, other family members, and other people who are important to them, such as teachers and coaches.
Challenging times for children during a parent illness
Severity of most mental illnesses tends to ebb and flow, depending on the illness and how well it is being treated. There are some specific phases of illness that might be extra challenging for kids, such as:
- Onset of the illness. Kids may ask questions like, “Why is Daddy sleeping all day [or up all night]?”, “When will Mommy be okay again?”, “Why doesn’t Dad want to play with me anymore?”, or “Why is Mom crying all the time?”
- During adolescence. Teens in particular feel incredible pressure to fit in, and having a parent with a mental illness can make that difficult. They may be very concerned about what their peers may think, and judgments that might be made about the family. Teens may rebel by engaging in risky behaviors, or isolate themselves from others, including family and friends.
- When the parent is acutely ill and/or acting bizarrely or socially inappropriately. Children often find these times frightening and embarrassing.
Part 2 will discuss ways to help children of parents with mental illness.