Most kids of parents with a mental illness experience childhood differently and less innocently than other children as they deal with their often chaotic home lives and navigate their worlds.
If you are the son or daughter of a parent with a mental illness, and you felt abandonment, depression, loneliness, or anger as a child or teen, you are not alone. Experts agree that children of mentally ill parents are prone to experiencing these feelings.
Michelle D. Sherman, Ph.D., ABPP, is a clinical psychologist and professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota. She is the co-author of I’m Not Alone: A Teen’s Guide to Living with a Parent Who Has a Mental Illness. “Although each childhood experience is unique,” Sherman says, “children of parents living with a mental illness often feel confusion, embarrassment, shame, fear, and anger. They may ask themselves, ‘Why can’t I bring my friends over? Am I going to be like this? Is it [my parent’s mental illness] contagious? Will my mother or father ever get better?’
“At the same time, many children experience a hope that their parents will get better through treatment, and pride when they see their parents are trying to get better.”
While some kids of mentally ill parents experience anger, for me anger was an alien emotion. To feel anger, I would have had to think that I deserved to be treated better.
Undoubtedly, some times are crazier than others. “Sometimes, parents living with an SMI [Serious Mental Illness] ‘act out’ in confusing, upsetting ways, such as during times of active psychosis . . . Parents living with mood disorders may struggle with suicidal thinking and behavior, which can be very distressing. When parents act out in these ways, children may experience their parents as hostile, scary, out of control, and unpredictable. In turn, the children feel anxious, ashamed, sad, and angry,” notes Sherman.
Most definitely, I viewed my mother as hostile, scary, out of control, and unpredictable. Coming home from school, when I turned the knob to open the screen door of our front porch, I could count on my mother to be in some sort of foul mood before long. I just couldn’t predict what would set off an explosion.
Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, Surgeon General of California, shares in her book, The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity, that when she was growing up her mother suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Burke Harris reveals that every day after school she never knew if she was “coming home to happy Mom or scary Mom.”
“In our house,” she says, “times of intense anxiety and stress were interwoven with moments of love and joy.”
Child & Family Connections (CFC), a non-profit organization that helps families living with mental illness through peer-informed education, advocacy, and support, maintains that most parents with mental illnesses “are caring, capable, and committed to their children.” CFC’s programs are designed to help parents with mental illnesses build happy, healthy lives for their families.
Nonetheless, research points to the many risks children of parents with mental illness face.
It’s not uncommon for children of mentally ill parents to feel alone, ignored, or isolated. Experts say that often much of the family’s attention is directed toward the mentally ill parent, and the other parent/family members in the home become preoccupied with managing the illness. In my family’s case, everyone simply placated my mother in the misguided belief that it would make living conditions better or at least easier. It didn’t.
As noted by Sherman in “Reaching Out to Children of Parents with Mental Illness,” an article that appeared in Social Work Today, research shows that a parent living with SMI may detach (intentionally or unintentionally) from their child. Sherman explains that parents with SMI—particularly those with post-traumatic stress disorder—can develop emotional numbing, which can interfere with the parent’s ability to engage in everyday activities with their child. “Confused by the parental unavailability, children often feel uncared for, unloved, left out, and lonely. Children may also blame themselves for the change in their parent,” Sherman comments.
In my family, I was the one who became emotionally numb. As a teenager, I developed anorexia. The eating disorder allowed me to detach not only from my mother but from the world as a whole.
As reported in “Children of People with Serious Mental Illness,” published in Social Work Today, researchers have identified common themes running through the lives of children of mentally ill parents: “difficult and confusing parental relationships; feelings of abandonment; ‘parentification,’ or the need to take on the parenting role; feelings of isolation; lack of understanding and support from nonrelatives; difficulty trusting others; inability to maintain relationships; grief; low self-esteem; and depression.”
I can attest to these findings. I grew up to be fearful, a chronic worrier with low self-confidence.
Inability to trust has marred my personal relationships. I learned early on not to trust anyone. If someone did something nice, they had an ulterior motive. I learned not to expect anything good. Happiness was tenuous. If the best happened, the worst was sure to follow. In later years, I gave expression to grief. I grieved the absence of childhood, as have many other children of parents with a mental illness.
My brother Alec, six years older than me, experienced parentification. As I was growing up, Alec functioned as an adult in the household. Not only did he do the family laundry with my dad for years, but he also made school lunches for me, my sister, Patty, and my brother, Joe, until we were old enough to take turns slapping lunchmeat or tuna fish between slices of bread.
“Don’t you remember,” he once asked me when I was in my fifties, “the two years when mom didn’t leave her bedroom?” The fact is, I didn’t. Many memories from my childhood went down a black hole or simply dissipated.
“Some youths are given excessive responsibilities such as childcare for younger siblings, household chores, and even managing the parent’s behavior and medications . . . It’s important for kids to … just have fun,” Sherman says. Sherman compiled a list of ten concrete things that children of mentally ill parents need. Number six on the list resonated with me: “Kids need to be able to be kids.”
(The above article is an excerpt from my book, Crazy Was All I Ever Knew: The Impact of Maternal Mental Illness on Kids, which is available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback versions. I have used a pseudonym to protect the privacy of family members. You can reach me at www.Alicekenny.com)
I am the author of Crazy Was All I Ever Knew: The Impact of Maternal Mental Illness on Kids. My book combines memoir with research. My credentials include contributing articles to a Philadelphia daily newspaper on psychological, medical, family, and career issues. I was also an editor at a daily newspaper in Atlantic City. I live near a small seaside town in New Jersey with my husband Jack and our rescue dog, Maxie.