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Children of the Mentally Ill

Updated on February 27, 2018

Just as there's a wide range of mental illnesses, there are as many children and adult children of a mentally ill parent who have suffered without a voice. It may come as a surprise that many mentally ill people have "normal" lives on the outside; children, jobs, and spouses. However, this comes with a serious cost; the family sacrifices their lives in order to make things easier on the one who is ill.

Like a dirty secret, our society does little to support or acknowledge the kids who grow up in such a home. In the family setting, mental illness is usually ignored or disguised because of embarrassment or fear the children could be taken from the home. In this case the sickness spreads throughout the home placing the heaviest burden on children, always

As a child in this environment, you are never as important as the mentally ill parent- the parent and "protection" of the parent comes first. Mental illnesses have a resounding component of selfishness. Children are born selfish and it's a natural survival trait so what happens when children lose that God-given right and privilege? Fear, guilt, and shame take over the children's thoughts. Fear of things getting worse or losing the parent's love, guilt over having natural selfish feelings and needs of ther own, and shame because your family is different.

As you might guess, it's difficult for the child, once grown, to blend in with the rest of society when they've spent their early years pretending abnormal was normal. They often struggle to find out what's normal because they didn't learn that from their parents. They have a hard time functioning beyond the control a parent may still have on them, even though they are adults. Mental illness is hard to make sense of and adult children are trying to make sense of their chldhood for many years.

The lack of support for people who have a mentally ill parent is astonishing. This isn't something you can discuss in an everyday setting with so much shame surrounding it still. Slim Pickings on who to go to for good help. From experience, I can tell you not many people want to hear my story or want to hear anything beyond the very basics. It makes them "uncomfortable" or they simply don't understand. I couldn't tell my story without being judged.

I have my own story that has led to struggling with what's normal and whom to talk to about what. I don't even remember how I knew not to discuss my dad's "problems" and "quirks" but I definitely knew not to. From my experience, a mentally ill parent can make a child feel as if they were the abnormal one, the one with problems, and the one who needed to change to maintain a balance.

"Never having a childhood", "playing happy family" "it's like a death of a parent, but with no closure", "things aren't always what they seem to be", "always having a secret" are all quotes from adult children who grew up with an ill parent. As an adult, it is still hard for me to see a situation for what it is. The appearance of normal raises a red flag because I don't believe in normal, nor trust it.

Imagine if your parent was a serial killer. This is the life that Melissa Moore grew up with. As a child she unknowingly listened to her dad tell "stories" of how he could kill someone. He was the Happy Face serial killer now serving his sentence in prison. Instinctively, as most children of the mentally ill, she felt ashamed enough to keep everything a secret until her own daughter questioned where her grandpa was, then she knew if she didn't face the truth, she would never recover. She wrote a book entitled, Her statement about the book is "I'm coming out to encourage other people they are not alone".

Making Sense of Mental Illness

There's no coincidence that I chose Psychology as my major in college. There is also a reason why it came naturally for me and I graduated top of my class. I've spent half my life unraveling the oddities of my childhood.

Some of the issues posed to children of mentally ill are an increased likelihood of inheriting a mental disorder, they feel responsible for their parent at an early age, they are more likely to need therapy themselves, and have issues surrounding marital problems and addictions.

The first thing was my father's cross-dressing and gender issues. I thought every father dressed up like a woman from time to time because I saw it on a popular movie when I was a child; "Tootsie" where Dustin Hoffman dresses like a woman. The movie was fun and so was playing that 'game' with my dad. My dad eventually got a sex change as well. His transgender is not a mental illness- I don't want anyone to be confused about that. There is a name for it; Gender Identity Disorder, and even that does little to explain everything.

As I got older there were other symptoms, like being very antisocial, obsessed with shooting animals on our property- deciding which should live or die like it was a game, bargaining and charming people into doing him favors or tricking them somehow so he would always be the superior one, and demanding perfection from me and if I couldn't deliver then mental abuse was sure to ensue.Everything, especially people, are a game to him.

The root of my father's personality and gender disorders is narcissism. A term thrown around synonymously with selfishness too often. Narcissism is far more extreme. According to Wikipedia. "Narcissistic parents demand certain behavior from their children because they are seen as an extension of themselves and they need to be be properly represented". Even if that was the child's only task, it is far too much burden to carry.

Although I believe my dad to be high functioning in all his attributes, the difficulties associated with being an adult child of a mentally ill parent is they will always make YOU out to have the problem. It can drive a person nuts trying to reason with them. I finally get a handle on reality and it slips away, means nothing, in my father's presence. His words are never to be taken at face value, there is always a hidden agenda or insult. The best advice is to let it go and stop trying to fix a deteriorating situation. Mentally ill parents get worse with age and their disorders intensify so the letting go process is almost inevitable if you want a life of your own.

Processing Pain

No doubt you have experienced pain with a mentally ill or abusive parent. Whatever you have to do to establish a sense of self beyond their imprint on you, is necessary. Sometimes counseling helps because we can talk about these things that others won't understand or feel comfortable talking to us about. Other times, we have to cut ties for a period of time or indefinitely. We have been programmed to be self-sacrificing for our parent so guilt, along with the pain will be a major factor.

  • Treat yourself kindly as you would an innocent child. You would not likely throw a child into the same situation you dealt with so why do it to yourself? Don't make yourself relive it by dwelling on it.
  • If you get stuck in pain, then you become bitter, angry and hurt. Life always has pain in it and pain is meant for learning and even becoming better person for it. Look at pain as part of life and what you have to learn from it. Don't even get stuck in pain, keep moving on.


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