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At some time in their lives, most young people believe their parents need therapy. From an adolescent’s or teenager’s perspective, parents seem to make irrational decisions and don’t understand the “real” world that is high school. Those assumptions usually pass, though, when adolescents enter adulthood or become parents themselves.
Some young people, however, have a real understanding of what it means to have a parent with a mental illness. These young people struggle every day with their parents’ symptoms, trying to not only survive the consequences but also making every effort to make others think they have a healthy home life. Sometimes these young people may not reconcile these behaviors with a mental health condition. Perhaps the parents don’t even comprehend it themselves.
When a mentally ill parent’s mental disorder is undiagnosed or untreated, the child’s experience can be more than a struggle. It can be dangerous and emotionally traumatic. In some situations, adult children who grew up with a parent with mental health issues will unknowingly begin to exhibit some of the same behaviors, which may stay with them during their entire lives.
Having a mental illness doesn’t necessarily mean a person will be an abusive or disengaged parent. These parents aren’t purposefully harmful, and the time they spend dealing with their illness isn’t intentionally neglectful. However, most children of parents with a mental disorder report feeling neglected and having to “compete” with their parents for quality time and even for care for their individual needs. Although these young people often grow up thinking they’re unique and alone in their situation, some studies suggest up to 20% of young people in the general population of the United States live with a parent suffering from a mental illness.
A 2017 study led by psychologist Lynne McCormack of the University of Newcastle interviewed adult children of parents with mental conditions ranging from depression to schizo-affective disorder. The researchers found six core themes common to their subjects:
Several adult children of mentally ill parents have written about their experiences to help others suffering through the same situations, and most importantly, show them they’re not alone. The six core themes identified by the psychologists in the Newcastle study resonate throughout their stories.
Heather England, writing for Mental Health Talk, grew up with a father later diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She described her adolescence as a “rollercoaster” of highs and lows. “When I was very young, I thought this was just how daddies were,” she writes. “I didn’t have anything to compare. When I grew older and started branching out socially, I discovered I was wrong.”
Phyllis Rittner, who grew up to become a mental health advocate, writes about her father’s severe obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) with delusions and her mother’s depression and dependent personality disorder (DPD). “I lived in a permanent state of hyper-vigilance, constantly attuned to my father’s erratic moods and my mother’s helplessness,” Rittner writes. “Determined to please them at all costs, I became obsessed with fitting in.”
“Throughout my childhood, I knew my mother was different from other moms,” writes Kristina Wright in Healthline. “She was terrified of driving and often afraid to leave the house. She was obsessed with dying […]. I was her confidant and she often talked to me as if I were the mother and she were the child. She claimed to hear voices and see demons.” Wright now believes her mother suffered from an anxiety disorder and depression, and possibly even from more severe diagnoses.
England, Rittner, and Wright have something else in common: as young people, their mentally ill parents’ condition went undiagnosed, untreated, or both. This added a layer of complication to their already dysfunctional lives. Wright recalls her mother’s reactions to suggestions from family members that she should try psychotherapy. “Any attempt to suggest she needed help resulted in vehement denial and accusations that we […] thought she was crazy,” writes Wright. “She was terrified of being labeled unbalanced or ‘crazy.'” This refusal to seek mental health treatment led to a year-long estrangement between mother and daughter.
Growing up with a parent with an undiagnosed mental illness can present another unique and highly complex problem: young people grow up thinking their parent’s behaviors are somehow their fault. S. Rufus, writing in Psychology Today, lived with a mother whom she believes suffered from borderline personality disorder (BPD). “[…I]f your parent has been diagnosed with a mental illness, then at least you know something is ‘wrong’ with him or her, that you don’t imagine it, and that it’s not your fault,” writes Rufus. “If your parent is mentally ill yet has never been diagnosed, you keep believing you can make him or her happy if you just try hard enough. Your parent’s paranoia, rage, delusions, sorrow, and/or suicidal urges are your ‘normal.’ We grow up not knowing that our parents are ill.”
There are several reasons parents may not seek out help from a psychologist or mental health professional. Perhaps it’s the stigma of being diagnosed with a mental health condition, the belief that mental illness is an untreatable disability, or simply not understanding they have a problem in the first place. However, avoiding the family discord, marriage problems, and dysfunctional home environment that going untreated causes is undoubtedly worth putting all of those fears aside and getting help.
One of the risk factors of growing up with an undiagnosed parent is the fear that they’ll end up with the same disorders. This constant worry can lead to anxiety or a decision not to have children out of the fear of genetic factors, creating a repeat of their adolescence.
There is some validity to the idea of passing on specific disorders because of genetic factors and a family history of mental illness. Studies show that children of parents with bipolar disorder are at a “significantly higher risk for bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.” The same holds for borderline personality disorder (BPD), according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). One psychologist believes that as adults, these young people “easily slip into depression” and have a higher risk of suicide.
There is positive news, however. Psychotherapy and counseling with a mental health professional can help adult children who grew up with a mentally ill parent to not repeat history with their offspring. One writer, though, found that having an undiagnosed parent presented a unique challenge the first time she tried psychotherapy.
“How do we and our doctors craft the most effective therapy if a parent has resisted any form of mental health care, leaving us without a vital lens through which to filter our childhood?” writes Katie Klabusich. After several sessions, the therapist posited the theory Klabusich’s mother had borderline personality disorder (BPD) with narcissistic tendencies, one of the most often “underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed conditions” according to the NIMH. For Klabusich, learning about the cause of her mother’s behaviors with the help of a mental health professional helped her to frame her childhood experiences from a new perspective.
Even though they suffer when their parents don’t seek professional help, young people with mentally ill parents can find answers for their past and current issues with the help of a licensed counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. Like Klabusich, sometimes gaining a better understanding of the specific disorder their parent most likely suffered from is critical.
The NIMH defines borderline personality disorder (BPD) as an “illness marked by an ongoing pattern of varying moods, self-image, and behaviors.” Other signs and symptoms of BPD are unstable relationships, substance abuse, impulsive behaviors, suicidal thoughts, highly changeable moods, inappropriate or intense anger, and binge eating. Writer S. Rufus, the author who now believes her mother suffered from BPD, felt BPD’s characteristics of “identity issues, self-loathing, negativity, black-and-white thinking, and a sense of emptiness inside” described her mother “perfectly and tragically.”
Bipolar disorder, which the NIMH estimates affects at least 5.7 million Americans, manifests as a “spectrum ranging from manic highs to devastating lows.” Highs can include increased talkativeness and increased risk-taking, while lows can include depressed mood, feelings of guilt, and suicidal thoughts. Bipolar disorder is common among parents of young people who feel like they have to “walk on eggshells” because they can never anticipate their parents’ mood. Writer Heather England’s father was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder. “It was the first time in our lives that someone said bipolar disorder — it all started making sense,” writes England. “I gained an entirely different perspective on what I experienced when I grew up. It’s still heartbreaking to think about what my father must have gone through, how he must have felt.”
Schizophrenia, with which writer Kristina Wright believes her mother suffered in addition to anxiety disorder, depression, and bipolar disorder, is a chronic condition that, although not as common as other disorders, can be crippling and can last throughout a patient’s whole life. Symptoms of schizophrenia include hallucinations, delusions, and dissociation from reality. In addition to seeing demons and hearing voices, Wright’s mother became increasingly controlling and manipulative, calling Wright multiple times a day at college.
Wright writes that growing up with a parent with an undiagnosed mental illness made her more aware of her own emotions and potential psychological conditions in adulthood. She’s employing a preventive strategy to protect her children from enduring what she experienced. For example, Wright has vowed to be open about mental illness with her children, so they will never know the stigma of seeking help. She also wants to make sure they are aware of and have detailed information about their family history of mental illness.
As the Newcastle study discovered, many young people who have parents with mental illness will eventually use their childhoods to create opportunities for self-growth and hope and optimism for a better future. Some participants “found it fostered empathy, compassion, and resilience” and that the experience was a “blessing in disguise” because they were able to fix something broken. Others used their broken childhood as motivation to continue improving their lives. One study participant said, “One of my mottos is success is the best revenge. I just love learning and bettering myself and being independent.”
In her blog post for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Phyllis Rittner, whose parents both suffered from severe mental illnesses, offers several pieces of advice for young people in the same position. To help yourself deal with emotional situations at home, Rittner recommends self-soothing by listening to a favorite song or enjoying a fun hobby and calming your anxious mind with activities like meditation or yoga. If you’ve entered adulthood and are working through your past experiences, try to identify your emotional triggers and develop grounding techniques that help you come back to the present moment. She also advises creating a preventive strategy to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself; for example, engage in healthy relationships instead of toxic ones, and replace the self-judgment and shame of your childhood with self-compassion.
Above all, if you are currently suffering or have suffered as a childhood with a mentally ill parent, don’t hesitate to make an appointment with a school counselor or mental health professional. A personalized program of therapy, potentially coupled with medication, will help you understand your parents’ conditions, treat your mental health conditions, and combat unhealthy behaviors so you can live a happier, healthier, more whole life.