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When it comes to personality development, there has always been a debate on the importance of nature vs. nurture. Experts have been exploring if genetics are more important or the environment in which the child grows up. No doubt, genes pass on the potentials and predispositions, but the home environment also plays an equally critical role in evolving the child into a certain type of adult. As a psychologist, I strongly believe that the personality traits and parenting style of the parents, especially the mother, have a great influence on the future life of their child.
When I was in college, I had a classmate who was always anxious, irritated, and stressed. She was living in the university dormitory and had problems with almost everything. She would always complain about the food, dorm management, the behavior of her roommate, and the list would never end. Similarly, every class assignment, quiz, and presentation would cause her to panic.
Gradually, as we got to know one another better, she shared that her mother had bipolar disorder. She grew up in an unpredictable environment, where she was always guessing which side of her mom would be dominant on a given morning. If one day her mom was in an active and cheerful mood, the very next day she would be too tired to get out of bed. This unpredictability and confused relationship with her mother led to her overly anxious and stress-prone personality.
Growing up with a parent who has a mental illness can be very challenging for a child. These challenges multiply when, due to the parent’s mental illness, the child is exposed to other adverse childhood experiences. He can be subjected to parental neglect, both physical and emotional. In the case of chronic and severe mental illness, unpredictable or aggressive behavior of the affected parent can translate into emotional or physical abuse of the child. These adverse childhood experiences can leave everlasting imprints on his behavior and emotions. Based on my experience as a professional, let me share how mental illness can adversely affect the behavior of a child and what we can do about it.
What is mental illness?
Mental illness can range from a single episode or a temporary condition, such as postpartum depression or post-traumatic stress after an accident or loss, to a chronic, lifelong and debilitating illness, e.g., schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, etc.
Similarly, the severity can vary from mild to severe symptoms.
How common is mental illness?
It is alarming that one in five US adults are living with a mental illness, and prevalence is higher among females (24.5%) than males (16.3%). In the light of such a disturbingly high prevalence rate, parental mental illness becomes a serious risk factor leading to adverse childhood experiences of the children.
How does a parent’s mental illness impact a child?
Research indicates that certain personality traits and mental health issues of the parents significantly contribute to the increased probability of behavioral problems and mental illness in their children.
The behavioral manifestations of mental illnesses can be very confusing for a child. He might not be able to understand why his schizophrenic mother has hallucinations and delusions. A mother with bipolar disorder might always take the child by surprise and her ever changing moods might result in a confused and unstable personality in her child. Similarly, a mother with anxiety disorder might end up shouting at the child without any logical reason, leaving him wondering what actually angered his mother.
It is worth noting that not every child is impacted by maternal mental illness in the same way. The way a child responds to the mental health issues of his parent depends on the following factors:
- Nature and severity of parental mental illness
- Age and developmental stage of the child
- Availability of support from other family members
- Role and involvement of the non-affected parent
- Resilience and strong personality of the child.
How children respond to parental mental illness
The mental illness of a parent can evoke dissimilar behaviors in different children. Let me share a few common responses of children, as this understanding will help us when we will discuss coping strategies below.
- Shame: The child might try to hide his mother’s mental illness from others out of shame.
- Guilt: The child may blame himself or feel guilty at stressing out the mother to the level that she broke down.
- Anger: The child may become aggressive and violent because he fails to understand why this happened to his family.
- Stress: He feels stressed, depressed, and sad.
- Relief: He feels relieved because mental illness explains the otherwise unjustifiable behavior of his mother.
What home life is like for a child living with a mentally ill parent
Mental illness is a particularly difficult adverse childhood experience because it can lead to other adverse childhood experiences.
- Routines get affected: Normally, moms strive hard to bring discipline into their home life by setting up routines and schedules. When a mother is facing mental illness, discipline and predictability gets disturbed. It can result in physical neglect and the child can fall a victim to physical abuse or sexual abuse by caregivers or extended family members.
- Difficulty in connecting with children: It is important to pay attention to the emotions and feelings of your children. A mom can be stuck in bed due to depression, unable to spend quality time with the child, leading to emotional neglect. A mom with mental illness can get detached from reality due to hallucinations. Shouting, nagging, teasing, or extremely indifferent behavior of the mom can actually become emotional abuse, which can have serious consequences for his future life.
- Instability: Normally, the daily life of a mom is all about providing stability, meeting the needs of children, and getting things done. Mental health issues might mean physical neglect such as no breakfast in the morning, inadequate help to get children ready for school, and failing to help the children with their studies.
- Bad habits: A child can learn wrong or inappropriate behaviors or responses by following the behavior patterns of the parent with mental illness. These behaviors can range from washing hands continuously to becoming overly impulsive or getting easily irritated or depressed.
- Financial implications: If the mental health conditions are so debilitating that the affected parent cannot continue in their job, it might also have financial implications, making the home environment more tense.
- Strained parental relations and divorce: The mental illness of a parent might result in strained parental relations, which could culminate in separation or divorce. Having a chronic mental illness can also have a negative impact on the court’s decision regarding custody of the child. Divorce, living in a broken family, being raised by a single parent, or having a very limited opportunity to meet the parent with mental illness, can leave long lasting scars on the personality of the child.
How to help children cope with parent’s mental illness
If you are facing any mental illness, or you know of any parent who is going through mental health issues, the following coping strategies might make things easier for the children.
- Talk to them: The most important thing is to talk to your children. Discuss your mental illness with your children, but in an age-appropriate way. It will help them understand your behaviors and they will be more empathetic. If you do not feel comfortable sharing your challenges, get your doctor or therapist to help. If advised by him, you can even take your children to one of your sessions.
- Develop a support system: Due to your mental health issues, you might not be able to be there for your children all the time. Try to involve their older siblings, your spouse, extended family, and friends to create a support system. This will help you through the days when you are feeling low.
- Make your health a priority: You are precious to your children. Try to make your mental health a priority. Do not miss appointments with your doctor, take your medicine regularly, and follow therapeutic guidelines.
- Read stories on mental health: at times its not easy for children to grasp the concept of mental illness. They also struggle with understanding the behavioral manifestations of mental illnesses. In such situations, you can get help from story books written around the themes of mental health.
A few last words on mental illness
Mental illness is a reality and it is as serious as any physical illness. Considering the fact that 15.5 million adults in the US are living with mental illness, it’s time to make your mental health a priority. If you feel that you are struggling with mental health issues, please do not let any shyness or fear of stigma stop you from getting help for your condition and with your children. It’s not just about you. It’s about the future of your children. Keep yourself healthy so you can raise physically and mentally healthy children.