Supporting Each Other When Your Child Has a Mental Illness

Your child has been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. After months and years of trying to understand why traditional parenting methods have not been successful, you are beginning to understand why. Remember, mental illnesses often have a biological component. They are not the result of bad parenting, and they probably couldn’t have been prevented by anything that you, as a friend or family member, might have done differently. Even still, after the diagnosis it’s normal to feel a range of powerful—and often unpleasant—emotions.
It’s not abnormal to feel ashamed, hurt, or embarrassed by a family member whose behaviors can be difficult to understand and deal with. Many people also feel anger at the circumstances, at each other and even at the person who has been diagnosed. And though it may not be logical, parents often engage in some degree of self-blame. Such feelings of shame and anger may also go hand-in-hand with feelings of guilt. Grief is also common.

Parents, in particular, often have to readjust their hopes or expectations for the future when their child develops a serious mental illness. In the process, you may grieve for the future you thought your child would have. These feelings, though difficult, are totally normal. You grieve for the lost years and dreams you had for parenting this child and the relationship you dreamed of. It is painful. These feelings are normal and are not meant to be “solved”. Just listen and express understanding. If you don’t understand why your partner is feeling like they are, ask questions. Express interest and caring.

Dealing with life with your child can often be extremely difficult and you need to shore up as much support for yourself as you can. It’s important to maintain your own health as you care for a loved one with mental illness, but it is also critically important to preserve relationships with other family members, including your spouse or partner. If you have a child (whether a minor or an adult) with a serious mental illness, you may find yourself focusing less attention on your other children. Healthy siblings may feel anxiety and frustration at the extra responsibilities they are expected to take on. Try to regularly set aside a little one-on-one time with your other children. Tell them how much you appreciate their help.

Clear, honest communication is crucial for all family members. For example, don’t be afraid to ask both your ill and healthy children how they feel about the changes to the family. Keeping a line of communication open when you discover a loved one is ill is difficult because you are so overwhelmed by your own powerful feelings, but it can help to share your feelings and realize you are not all alone in trying to process complex feelings. Sometimes you won’t be able to communicate or it will be too much to listen to another family member’s pain and frustrations. That’s okay too. Communicate your love and desire to listen, but ask if you can talk about it later in the day or the next day. Make sure a sense of love, support and understanding is conveyed…”I know…it’s a lot, and I want to listen, but I am overwhelmed right now” is perfectly okay.

Other times, it can seem impossible to focus your attention on anything else. But it’s important to take care of your own needs. Try to eat healthy meals, get some exercise, and get enough sleep. Making time to do things you enjoy will help you keep your stress levels in check. You’ll be better able to support your loved one if you take steps to maintain your own physical and mental health.

Serious mental illnesses often present logistical challenges as well as emotional ones. When possible, reach out to other friends and family members to help ease your responsibilities. You might be surprised how happy they are to lend a hand—if you let them. It’s normal for the family dynamic to change when one family member is diagnosed with a serious mental illness. It will probably take some time to accept those changes and establish a new routine. It helps to remember that people with serious mental illnesses can live rich, fulfilling lives—and so can you.

It is normal to feel a whole range of emotions as you have encountered unbelievably painful and difficult circumstances. You have felt helpless, frustrated and oftentimes, completely alone in you pain, frustration and anger. You want answers; solutions; direction; guidance and understanding. And when those answers, solutions, direction and guidance aren’t forthcoming, you may lash out at those around you. Now is the time to repair those relationships. Express your remorse at taking your frustrations out on your partner, and try to focus on how you have been feeling. Step out of blaming and try to focus on what you can do for each other moving forward. If you want to try something new with your child, honestly discuss why you want to try this new plan. Support your partner. Try each other’s ideas out for a time. If they don’t work, compliment each other for trying, for consistency. Acknowledge that it has been difficult and painful for you both.

Always try to remember that you are both struggling. Remember that you both love this child and want the best for him or her. Moving forward will often involve setbacks and disappointments, but don’t blame each other. You are both doing your best to move forward in a seemingly impossible situation. Try to make time for each other. Tell each other you know it’s difficult. Ask how you can support your partner. If you can’t do what they need perfectly, offer to do what you can do. Be honest. Be forgiving. You must be compassionate with yourself and your partner. You are not enemies. You are parents of a child with mental illness and it is critically important that you are strong for each other so that you can face the challenges with your child together. You must always present a unified front so that your child doesn’t manipulate your relationship struggles to get what they want. You are the parents and you are the partners. Support each other. Work together. And forgive each other for not always being your best. Try to remember what you love about each other in those moments and see that your partner is in pain.

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