The psychological impact of having a parent with mental illness

In this week’s post, The Blue Tree Clinic’s intern and aspiring clinical psychologist Alexis Baker discusses the difficulties of growing up with a parent struggling with mental illness…

1 in 5 adults experience mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, therefore it is no surprise that many children grow up with parents with mental illnesses. It must be highlighted that many parents are able to effectively manage their symptoms and provide a stable, loving home for their children. However, this is not always the case, and children with parents with untreated or severe mental illness will feel the effects even if they are not fully aware of what is happening.

Growing up with a parent struggling with mental illness can involve being surrounded in an unpredictable, unstable, and sometimes unsafe environment. The child may see their parent act in violent, impulsive, and emotional ways that can lead to them struggling to form a secure and healthy parent-child relationship. Often the fluctuations in mood and behaviour are challenging for the child to fully understand, enhanced by many parents choosing to simply state ‘mummy/daddy is unwell’. There may also be times when the severity and complexity of the symptoms heavily preoccupies the parent meaning the child can become neglected and potentially passed onto other family members to be cared for. Alternatively, the child may also take on the roll of the caregiver in their attempts to support, sooth, and bond with the parent.

These challenges can negatively impact the child in later life as:

  • The child can develop anxiety disorders following the frightening and unstable ways in which they see their parent.
  • They may take on negative coping skills (e.g. use of substances, emotional outburst, avoidance of services) after observing the parent struggle to cope with their mental illness in the same way. This may also be related to the child feeling they are ‘destined’ for mental illness so will feel more inclined to mimic the parent’s behaviours.
  • With ongoing lack of consistent care and support from the parent the child may develop a sense of rejection, particularly if they wish to know more about the mental illness but the information is not shared with them by the family.
  • The child may begin to resent the parent once they notice the more stable and supportive parent-child relationships experienced by their peers. There may be times when the child particularly feels they are the odd one out, e.g. if their parent is not able to come to parents evening’s at school, or if they see peers playing with their parents at the park, increasing the potential for resentment.

Mental health issues can significantly impact one’s ability to carry on with life as they normally would, and it can understandably be very difficult to care for a child on top of everything else. It is important to remember that if someone is struggling to balance being a parent with symptoms of mental illness this does not make them a bad person. However, this does not take away from the fact that, as a child impacted by these issues, that your time growing up may have been a struggle too. If you find yourself relating to the points made above, here are some things to remember:

  • You have the power to break the cycle. You may worry that the mental illness within your family will reach you, and in turn impact your children in the same way it impacted your own upbringing. However, you have the unique insight into what caused your child-self to be sad, frightened, or distressed, and you can use these unique tools to become the supportive, caring, and introspective parent you can be.
  • You are not alone in your situation. As mentioned before, around 20% of adults experience mental health issues so every time you walk down the street you likely pass several people whose childhood was impacted by their parents in the same way as you. Through joining local support groups or finding similar individuals through Facebook groups or other social media, you can connect with other people whilst sharing your experiences and supporting one-another.
  • If you do experience mental illness in adulthood this does not mean that you will struggle to cope like your parent did. It is important make the effort to take control over your symptoms and learn from the ways in which your parent struggled. For example, be open about receiving mental health support rather than avoiding it out of fear of accepting that it is present in your life. Take advantage of NHS, Charity, and private organisations on offer and find ways to prevent it from controlling other important aspects of your life (e.g. your children, your relationships, your work).

If you feel that you, or a loved one, is struggling with mental health issues, it may be time to reach out to a professional. At the Blue Tree Clinic, our dedicated team of psychiatrists, psychologists, and other clinical professionals are available to help you with mental health concerns and guide you towards becoming happier in your life and in your relationships with loved ones.