Helping a Child Cope with Parental Mental Illness
Mental illness is a challenging obstacle to overcome due to its very nature. It's invisible. It alters the mind and emotions. And it can break down one's ability to communicate.
One in four people struggle with mental illness at some point during their lifetime. For some the condition may be temporary, while others live with their illness for years or even decades. Recent statistics show that 68% of women and 57% of men who are mentally ill are also parents. This leaves thousands of children struggling to understand their mentally ill parent.
How Mental Illness Affects Children
Children are resilient, but they're also impressionable. If a parent struggles with mental illness temporarily – such as in acute cases of depression, anxiety, or traumatic stress reactions – children are usually unaffected long-term.
However, many parents struggle with chronic mental disorders such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, personality disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, or chronic depression or anxiety. When children are exposed to parental mental illness longer term, they can begin to develop unhealthy perspectives of their parents and the world.
Children of parents with mental illness often blame themselves for their parents' volatile emotions. If the parent is removed from the home – such as being admitted to a psychiatric hospital or rehab center – the child can suffer from separation anxiety or anger towards the parent for leaving.
In the face of parental mental illness, many children internalize their frustrations and develop emotional or behavioral problems of their own. Children of mentally ill parents often struggle in school, have problems with peers, or withdraw from others and limit their communication.
Educate Your Child
Mental health disorders are confusing – both for the ill individual and the family – and unanswered questions are painful. Help your child get answers by having an open discussion about parental mental illness. Children are very observant of others' emotions, but they often don't understand what those emotions mean. A child may see a depressed parent and think that he or she did something wrong. Explain to your child that their parent's illness is not their fault.
If your child is old enough, online support groups and resources can be a great way to help children and adolescents come to terms with their parent's mental illness. Children need to know that they're not alone and there are others out there who understand what they're going through. It is especially helpful for children to connect with peers via online or in-person support groups.
Mental health disorders can run in families. Be proactive about your child's care by being aware of the warning signs. Most mental illnesses are treated most successfully when they are caught early. If you suspect your child may also suffer from mental illness, talk to your family doctor or a mental health professional. Oftentimes mental health disorders can be treated with therapy and do not require medication.
If you are a parent with a mental illness or are close to a mentally ill parent, it's important to get help immediately. Asking for help is a sign of strength, wisdom, and determination to be a healthier person. Find a therapist near you or speak to your doctor about possible treatment options – many of which may be covered by insurance
If your child is beginning to display emotional or behavioral problems, there is help for them, too. Talk to your child's school counselor about what programs may be available before, during, or after school hours. Consult your family doctor or pediatrician for referrals to child therapists or social workers.
But most of all let your child know that their parent's mental illness is not their fault and they are still loved. Communicate to your child that you care about them and that no matter what happens, they will never be alone.
Mental illness is scary – for those afflicted and their children. But by helping your child understand the condition and assuring them that they are not to blame, you can protect your child from the effects of parental mental illness.
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