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How a Child’s Mental Illness Can Have Tragic Consequences for Parents

Sometimes the most heroic efforts from parents aren’t enough...

Conversations, in a family, become linguistic archaeology. They build the world we share, layer it in a palimpsest, give meaning to our present and future. The question is, when in the future, we dig into our intimate archive, replay our family tape, will it amount to a story? A soundscape? Or will it all be sound, rubble, noise, and debris?

~Valeria Luiselli, Lost Children Archive

In the past few decades there has been a significant increase in mental illness in American children, teens, and young adults. While much has been written about the perils to children of being raised by difficult parents, comparatively little has been written about the way that a child with subtle or overt mental illness can affect the parent-child relationship for years and years leading to resentment, anger, and, perhaps most painful of all, estrangement.

A child’s mental illness creates many opportunities for mistakes and misunderstandings on the part of parents. Children with mental health struggles of any age can generate incessant debates in a household: Is her problem primarily one of avoidance or motivation? Is she anxious or just making excuses? Are we being too involved or not involved enough? Should we respect her desire to stop therapy or insist that she continue? Should we defer to her wishes to not take medication or monitor her to make sure she stays on them? Should we push her to be more social or allow her to spend all of her time in her room? Should we test her for drugs or believe her that she’s not abusing them? Should we follow up on her homework to make sure she’s doing it or let her face the consequences of failing? Should we send her back to rehab, let her do AA, or let her hit bottom again?

Every one of these questions brings with it a suite of potential arguments, misinterpretations, and conflicts. It increases the possibility of the child’s feeling hurt or overly pathologized. It can cause children to doubt their parents’ faith in them, which can make the parents doubt their faith in their own capacities. Raising a child with some degree of mental illness also puts an additional level of strain on a family, as parents (married or not) often disagree about the best way to address the issues; they worry about the expense of therapists, psychiatrists, or residential programs (if affording such things is even possible); and they struggle with finding appropriate referrals for the child. In those homes, it’s possible for the most conscientious of parents to be later viewed by the adult child as having been overly intrusive, critical, unsupportive, or otherwise inadequate in their parenting. Which is tragic for everyone: for all the talk about the perils of helicopter parenting, some children require a whole fleet of helicopters as a result of their learning disabilities, attentional problems, anxieties, or difficulties regulating their moods. While some are grateful for the parent’s extensive efforts, others perceive the parent’s high level of involvement as emblematic of the parent’s dysfunction or narcissism. Their later resentment of that participation imagines a less flawed self that could have achieved more without the parent’s involvement. Or they imagine a parent who would have been more compassionate and patient in managing their challenges.

On the other hand, it’s not difficult to sympathize with a young adult’s perspective: while they may have genuinely needed their parents to do all that was done for them, they could have still felt diminished, smothered, or squashed by the process. They could justifiably have been humiliated by the parent’s extensive involvement, however necessary it was to their overcoming their many challenges. The dynamic, however necessary, may have misshaped the youth’s subjective world in the same way that a miracle drug may leave someone with lifelong vulnerabilities.

While parents might feel like they had done a heroic, let alone expensive job of providing their child with every resource imaginable, a young adult could reasonably have an entirely different portrait of their childhood, especially once they are living on their own and reckoning with the ways they felt unprepared to launch an adult life. Perhaps even more tragic is when the adult child blames the parent for the problems that they’re having in adulthood and cuts them out of their lives forever, something I sadly see too much of in my practice.

In my practice, where I specialize in family therapy and parental estrangement, I have found that the following can be helpful for parents:

  • Calmly state what you’re willing to do or not willing to do, without blame, criticism, or guilt trips. For example, “I’m willing to help you under the following conditions,” or “I understand why you feel like that, but I’m not able to do that.” Instead of “All you do is take and you never give anything. You’re such a manipulative and destructive person.”

  • Avoid defending yourself, justifying your decisions, or blaming your child. Instead, take responsibility where you can and show empathy for your adult child’s wish that you could have raised them differently.

  • Calmly let your child know that when they talk to you in a highly provocative or disrespectful way, they make it hard for you to listen or pay attention. Explain that you know they have something important to say and you want to hear it, but you’re unable to do so when they use a tone of voice that is hostile or intimidating.

  • Don’t let yourself be blackmailed. But don’t criticize the child for trying. Simply say, “No, that won’t work for me.” Or “No, I’m not willing to do that. But I am willing to_____.”

  • Empathize with what they’re feeling or saying. “I could see why you’d feel like that [or, how you might feel like that]. However . . .”

  • Ask what they’d like from you specifically and make a determination about what you want to do separate from your feelings of guilt or intimidation.

  • Model being in control of your own emotions without acting like you’re trying to control theirs.

Adapted from Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict (Harmony Random House, 2021) ~Joshua Coleman, Ph.D. Psychologist, Writer, Speaker, Musician, Senior Fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families


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