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Facing Life as an Adult when a Parent has a Mental Illness

Parent with mental illness

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Having a parent with mental illness can be challenging for anyone. If you have a parent with a mental illness, you might have a different sense of what “normal” life at home means, and you’ve most likely already experienced enough to know that life with a mentally ill parent can be filled with anxiety and a heightened sense of vigilance.

You may have grown up becoming used to having some of your needs neglected — you may have had experiences where you felt you needed to compete with your parent’s symptoms to receive needed care. Living with a parent with mental illness can indeed be difficult.

Such dynamics, among others, can exacerbate the risk of issues emerging later in life, including emotional and psychological disturbances, learning challenges, and impaired overall functioning.  Other challenges you may find yourself dealing with might include troubled relationships and marital problems. You may resent, or have other bitter or hard feelings toward your parent.

As an adult, addressing the parent’s mental illness with siblings and other family members can be awkward, at best. Some people prefer to remain quiet about a parent’s diagnosis, while others may need to share their thoughts and experiences more openly.

The following are some suggestions for approaching the situation along with siblings and other family members.

  • Don’t reinforce the stigma with your silence. Remember that the stigma of mental illness is only perpetuated if you choose to avoid discussion of the illness. By openly discussing the illness’ occurrences and influence in your family, you and your siblings are helping yourselves find new creative strategies to cope with the past and to prepare for what the future may bring.
  • Research any relevant diagnoses and share what you know with your siblings. A factual explanation for upsetting behaviors can help you put things in a clearer perspective, and help you better to forgive your parent and let go of any ill feelings you might still harbor.
  • Share your personal story of growing up. Encourage your siblings to share their own story of growing up, and be sure to share your own. Be as objective as possible, and speak in terms of “I used to feel like…,” “It seemed to me that…,” and “this is how I remember it….” Your story is valid, as is your siblings’.  Speaking from your own perspective, and listening to one another’s, can help to piece together the family story more clearly, and make better sense of the overall “profile” of the parent in question.
  • Deepen your relationship with siblings or other family members. Nurturing this kind of open exchange can provide a supportive environment when talking about developing the same or a similar diagnosis through genetics.
  • Help nurture your relationship with your parents. If your parent is still alive and still mentally ill, openly sharing with your siblings or other family members can help you establish a healthier relationship with your still-living parents.

Refusal to acknowledge a parent’s mental illness or pretending that it did/does not affect your adult life will not make lingering issues go away by themselves. Being brutally honest about realities you have faced and may face in the future is uncomfortable and difficult, but it can open up communications, more authenticity, and healthier relationships within your family circle.

You may also find it might be helpful to seek professional help. Your feelings and experience are all valid and real, and a mental health professional and/or a support group can be very helpful in guiding you to seek resolution and peace of mind.

Are you and other family members struggling to come to terms with past or present dynamics dealing with a parent who has a mental illness? Is the stress preventing you from moving forward to manage the challenge? If you or someone close to you need to talk to someone about a parent or other family member with mental health issues that seem overwhelming, we can help. Consider reaching out to our expert team at Solara Mental Health at 844-600-9747.