Growing up with a parent with mental illness

There are certain times of the year where a lot of time is spent with family. During one of these times, I was left to ponder over a subject that we don’t seem to hear much about.


Growing up with a mentally ill parent

Being raised in a family where the parent has had or still has mental health issues is a complex situation for the children involved.

Some of these children will develop into adults learning to hide from the world. They may struggle to verbally express or feel a sense of shame. Some may learn to adapt to their situation somehow, sensing something is not right in their family. Some of these children will become the carers for their parent or siblings. In becoming a carer and having a sense of responsibility, this may give the sense of a lost childhood. They may struggle with friendship issues or learning difficulties at school. Other children manage their family situation by solely focusing on their studies or reading.

Children need to be nurtured, to be taught how to cope with their emotions, and have their needs met in various forms. Many of these children will have a background of some form of neglect. In some cases, the main focus in the family is the mentally ill parent and not the child/children. Though we understand this is often not the parent’s fault, as, in many mental health cases, this appears to follow in generational patterns.

According to the charity 'Kids Time', based in North London, "childhood experiences, both positive and negative, have a tremendous impact on lifelong health and opportunity".

"Parental mental illness is cited as a childhood experience that can affect mental or physical health in later life. Research has shown that as the number of adverse experiences a young person faces increases, so does the risk of negative outcomes, such as health-harming behaviour, chronic health conditions, and much more".

Many of these individuals grow as adults struggling to get by in the world, continuing to hide or avoid their childhood difficulties. When working with these adults, I often find many people reporting that something is missing within themselves. Some describe this as a void or emptiness. Alongside this, there is often a sense of isolation, guilt, and shame.

I do however believe these adults who were raised by a mentally ill parent can potentially change their future outcomes. In working through experiences, feelings, and thoughts with a therapist, this can eventually have a positive effect on enhancing positive growth and outcomes for the individual. This is where I find slow, gentle work is required to process and heal using ego state therapy (working with different parts of ourselves) with empathy, warmth, and compassion.

If you as an adult have experienced any of these childhood difficulties, please know that you have the potential to change. You can break the generational patterns for your future generations. You don’t have to suffer in silence.

If and when you chose to enter therapy, it is important to remember to work with a therapist who you feel comfortable with.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Brentwood, Essex, CM15
Written by Tracy Phillips, PgDip. MBACP, Counselling & Psychotherapy
Brentwood, Essex, CM15

I am an experienced qualified integrative psychotherapist and counsellor. I specialise in working with issues in relation to growing up with a mentally ill parent / family member. I have created and ran workshops on this subject. I am a member of BACP and UKCP and currently training in EMDR.

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