Raising children is always challenging, more so when you’re unwell

There can be many reasons why a child can grow up disturbed. Perhaps one of the most unfortunate ones is to have been raised by parents who were themselves coping with mental illness. And yet, with nearly one in five people experiencing a mental illness at some time in their life, there is a high chance that many children out there are, even right now, being raised by a parent who suffers from such a disturbance.

Some mental illness may be mild or short-lived, such as brought on when you’re coping with a death of a loved one. However, some may be more severe such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Or, you may have a long term problem such as alcohol addiction or drug abuse, personality disorder or depression.

Parents who have a mental illness naturally find it much more difficult than other parents to raise their children in a healthy environment. But, what happens to the child and other family members when parents suffer from mental illness? Here are just some of the problems the families may experience.

Harm to the child: parents who suffer from depression, psychosis (delusions) or suicidal thinking may subject their children to violence, either in the form of physical punishment or other forms of abuse.

Strained relations: mental illness may make the parent unstable, causing break-down of communication and constant strain between family members. The child may witness frequent quarrels, physical abuse of the other parent, or other scenes that can cause the child mental trauma.

Neglect: caring for the child may be erratic and inconsistent. A parent with depression, for instance, could be completely disinterested in caring for the child’s daily needs, health or schooling frequent absenteeism from school, low grades and being teased or bullied at school are some of the challenge these children face.

Attachment Issues: parents may find it difficult to form any emotional connection with their children. Physical affection may be limited, or completely absent. The child may miss out completely on love, especially if the other parent or a caretaker cannot make up for it. These issues could show up later on adult hood as social difficulties, clinginess to partners, difficulties with intimate relationships, and so on.

Parentification: Byrne et al (2000), in their study on children living with alcoholic parents, found that such youngsters assume responsibilities in their family that are inappropriate for their age. They may be forced to take on cooking, managing the home and caring for younger siblings, causing then to lose out on their childhood.

Isolation: The parent may be constantly suspicious of others (often as a result of the illness) and may not allow their child to interact with outsiders.

Passing on the symptoms:

Parents with mental illness who experience certain fears may pass these fears on to their children. Such fears may lead to the child behaving abnormally, or the parent behaving inappropriately around the child. More severe mental illness can have worse symptoms, such as seeing things that are not really there, hearing sounds and voices, and thinking that people or things are ‘out to get them’.

This can be extremely confusing and frightening for children, who tend to blame themselves. All of the above problems hamper the child’s growth and development in a variety of ways.

Students have shown that 25 to 50 per cent of children with a mentally ill parent will also experience some psychological disorder during childhood, adolescence or adulthood. And, that 10 to 14 per cent will be diagnosed with a psychotic illness at some point in their lives (Farrell, et al, 1999). As adults, they may be prone to low self-worth, violence and relationship trouble. Holding onto anything – be it a job or a relationship – can be difficult.

Coping Strategies

Unfortunately, too often, parents and other family members do not seek help because of the stigma. If you are a parent with a mental illness, it is important that you get help. This is especially important if you feel you are becoming violent of losting control, need to spend time in hospital, or find it difficult to cope financially.

If your spouse/family member is diagnosed with a mental illness, try to shield the children in the family against future disturbance. Ask a neighbor, relative or friend to step in and care for the children briefly until a solution is found. Watch carefully for signs of disturbance in the child, and seek help of a professional

If you are a neighbor or a friend or any other person in the ecosystem of a family where someone is diagnosed with a mental illness, then offer all the help you can. Typically, such families are over-burdened with emotional burdens, and find it difficult to cope with daily tasks. Any help or support you can offer would certainly be appreciated. Families of sufferers must also try to reach out and ask for help when they need it, though sometimes, in a stoic culture like ours, this can be very hard to do.

Growing up in an unfortunate dysfunctional environment does not spell doomsday. With help, support and professional intervention, children growing up in such homes can also blossom into stable, healthy adults.

This article first appeared on September 07th 2019 in the Mumbai Mirror.