Maintaining a healthy and loving relationship with our parents is one of the biggest challenges we face in our lives. The complexity and difficulty of such a relationship rises to another level if your parent struggles with mental illness. Observing and experiencing firsthand the reality of living with a mother or father with bipolar disorder, anxiety or depression throughout one’s childhood undoubtedly leaves an imprint on your psychological and emotional functioning. Perhaps you’re just entering adulthood while still living with your mentally ill parent. Maybe you moved out and became independent a while ago. In this post, you can learn more about the common issues of children with mentally ill parents, how they translate into adulthood as well as tips on how to deal with a parent with mental health issues and protect your wellbeing.
Common Issues in Childhood
It has been proven that a parent’s mental illness increases the risk of their child developing a mental health issue as well . Yet, that “(…) does not always lead to clinically significant distress on a child”, says Dr Particia Ibeziako, medical director and associate professor of psychiatry.
Maybe your parent was able to treat their mental illness, learn healthy coping skills, and openly communicate with you. If, however, your parent left their mental health issue untreated, chances are you might have been exposed, perhaps inadvertently, to several stressors such as emotional abuse, neglect or even trauma while growing up.
In order to ensure healthy development, all children need consistency and predictability, emotional and physical safety, unconditional love and acceptance, autonomy, as well as the opportunity to be children rather than caretakers of mentally ill parents or victims of their abuse. Failing to meet these needs can result in issues such as:
- Excessive anxiety and worry about your parent leading to adapting the role of a “parentified child”.
- Being in a constant state of hypervigilance and stress due to your parent’s erratic moods or unpredictable outbursts.
- Blaming yourself for the mental health issues of your parent and engaging in negative self-talk while resenting their condition.
- Struggling with perfectionism and low self-esteem developed due to a lack of your parent’s approval or attention.
- Putting your parent’s needs before your own while having yours neglected
- Feeling lonely and isolated because of hiding your personal life from the outside world or facing bullying and stigmatisation.
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Common Issues in Adulthood
As you grow up, the core unhelpful beliefs stemming from your childhood don’t magically disappear – they will most likely follow you into adulthood. It’s very common to hold onto the coping mechanisms that once enabled you to survive living in the same place as your parent in psychological distress. Even though you might have moved out and become independent, old habits might still be very present in your life. It’s crucial to realise that they no longer serve you. If left unchecked, they can be unconsciously carried onto your new relationships, whether with friends, at work or with your romantic partner. Before you realise, you might be repeating a pattern of your parent-child dynamic with a spouse or a demeaning boss and, unknowingly, inflicting harm onto yourself and others.
Understanding Your Parent’s Struggle
While you might deeply love or care for your parent, it might feel like “a fixed fight”. In order to cope with your childhood, you may wish to discuss the pain or trauma your parent’s circumstances inadvertedly inflicted on you. Yet, it can be challenging to find the right words to describe the depth of your sadness, anger or frustrations, especially if that topic was avoided in the past and your parent resists talking about it.
However, it’s important to deal with your parent’s mental health issue from a place of understanding, patience, and compassion. Remember that, most likely, it was never their intention to hurt you.
9 Tips: How to Cope With a Parent With Mental Health Issues
While it might seem like you’re incapable of leading a fulfilling life, that’s just the talk of the coping mechanisms from your past. The truth is, you can break the cycle by focusing on empathy, resilience, and inner strength. The process of transcending the pain isn’t fast or easy. It takes a lot of time and energy, so choose to be gentle with yourself.
1) Educate Yourself
Start with learning about your parent’s mental issue to better understand their struggle and cultivate compassion towards them. By educating yourself on the causes, triggers and common treatments, you can interpret your parent’s behaviour in the context of their mental illness, identify and possibly prevent similar symptoms or issues you might be experiencing. Find more information about a variety of issues here.
2) Accept Your Parent’s Mental Illness
Accepting your parent’s mental health issue does not mean accepting potential abuse or mistreatment received in your childhood. It also does not necessarily refer to cultivating a close, warm and loving relationship, as it’s often too difficult. Accepting means:
- Embracing your parent as a person who struggles with an issue they didn’t choose,
- Understanding that you are not to blame for their mental illness,
- Recognising that you are in no way responsible for changing their state.
3) Set Boundaries With Your Parent:
Defining and enforcing boundaries in your relationships depicts how you expect to be treated by others. Staying firm and consistent can feel specifically challenging if you’re struggling with people-pleasing or perfectionism or your parent’s becoming defensive, reluctant or disrespectful.
Let’s say that you don’t want your parent to raise their voice and yell during an argument. Here’s how to explain your feelings, needs and requests, according to non-violent communication:
When you do/say XXX, it makes me feel XXX. I need XXX. In the future, can you XXX?
When you raise your voice and yell at me during a disagreement, it stresses me out and makes me feel humiliated. I need to be treated with mutual respect during our discussion, even when we disagree. In the future, can you not raise your voice and remain calm or take a break if that’s not possible for you?
4) Take a Break
Suppose you take care of your elderly parent struggling with ageing-related depression. Witnessing their pain can be heartbreaking. Allow yourself to take a break and engage in self-care both as a preventative measure and in times when you feel burnt out.
Sometimes taking a break can also mean fully disconnecting from your parent and spending some time away from them. Put your needs first and free yourself from any guilt or responsibility for your parent’s happiness.
5) Find Meaning in Your Pain
While looking back on the hardships of your childhood might feel uncomfortable, finding meaning in them can be quite enriching . Very often, people with mentally ill parents mention that their experience taught them:
- Empathy and compassion towards those in pain
- Appreciation for moments of peace and simplicity
- Resilience in the face of adversity
Shifting your perspective from the caused damage and negativity towards your inner strength and positivity helps accept your past and work with it, not against it.
6) Surround Yourself With Supportive Friends
The reality of coping with a mentally ill parent takes a mental toll, and engaging in healthy relationships is a great way to balance the difficulties. Remember that you have every right to be picky and choose your friends cautiously. Look for attentive and emotionally available people who make you feel safe, seen and respected.
7) Discover Self-Soothing
As you let go of unhealthy coping mechanisms, you make space for new habits. Engaging in self-soothing activities can help you have fun and relax. It can be anything from cooking a tasty meal, going on a walk in the park to reading a fascinating book. Whatever your hobby is, choose to commit to it weekly.
8) Practice Mindfulness
Your words create your reality. The content of your thoughts and beliefs influences your behaviours and perception of the world. If you’re struggling with self-blame, guilt, anger or excessive worry, mindfulness practices can restore balance and inner peace as well as bring positive change such as self-awareness of how your thoughts regarding your mentally ill parent affect your life.
9) Seek Professional Help
Starting therapy can be challenging, especially if you’re struggling with feeling unworthy of help. Nevertheless, seeking professional help and getting in touch with a registered therapist can be a life-changing experience. It’s an opportunity to look back on your childhood experiences and understand how they influence you in adulthood. You will learn coping skills to let go of self-hatred, allow yourself to be imperfect and live your life from a place of greater self-compassion. Therapy can also give you space to be yourself and speak your mind while being unconditionally accepted by a non-judgmental therapist, experiences that you may not have been able to enjoy during childhood.
If you’re struggling to cope with a mentally ill parent and want to talk about it, do not hesitate and contact us for a free 15-minute consultation.