Long-term mental illness does not necessarily equate with poor parenting or neglect, but it may mean that the capacity to provide care is compromised because of the nature and course of the illness. For example, long periods away from home because of hospital treatment may make care unpredictable, which could lead to attachment issues and behavioral problems in children. A parent with schizophrenia may have problems in expressing warmth to their child. Moreover, parental fears about their children being removed could also lead to resistance in seeking out treatment, and this can ultimately be worse for the parent and child.
For most children and adolescents the mere fact of growing up is difficult, but when one or more parents have mental illness the normal developmental processes can be severely challenged. In the short term children can be both emotionally resilient and supportive. When a parent experiences longer term psychological problems the problems for the child or adolescent can begin to accumulate.
During the onset of illness children can feel isolated and confused if they do not understand what is happening, what to expect or how long the situation may last. Many younger children have difficulty with the concept of illness and they may believe the situation has arisen because of something they have done. Information and reassurance are key features in both helping to reduce anxiety and provide a simple structure for coping (i.e. who to turn to for help).
If the parent experiences psychological problems over a long period of time the child may start to feel unsure about their parental relationship. Care and nurturing of the child may start to suffer and they may be expected to take on many adult responsibilities such as shopping, cleaning, ironing, making meals and possibly looking after younger brothers and sisters. School work may suffer and children can become the victims of bullying both at school, on the street, or increasingly by text, email, or websites.
As childhood gives way to adolescence and young adulthood, additional issues may begin to emerge. The normal social skills that are acquired and refined by peer contact and outside influences may not be present. Difficulties may be experienced in initiating or maintaining a relationship – friendship or intimate. The adolescent may have no clear view of their own identity and they may experience a range of emotions about themselves and their situation. For example, depression, fear of becoming ill themselves, anger and frustration, guilt, shame and a negative view of life and their own future.
Tips for Kids
- Get information about your parent’s illness. Maybe your parent can provide this, but maybe you should see the doctor and read additional information. Once you understand what is happening you will feel better informed and more in control.
- Consider who you might confide in. For example, if you feel your school work is suffering, you should confide in your teacher who may be able to help you out in more ways than you might think.
- Try to think positively. You may be living a life that is full of ups and downs but this is not of your making and it’s not up to you to try and fix it. It’s o.k. to feel upset, anger, confusion and other negative emotions.
- Get people involved. They may not be able to do things for your parent that isn't already being done, but they might be able to support you or give you a break.
- Remember you are not alone. Mental illness is very common and there are places you can turn for guidance, help and support. Here are a few web resources to get you started: