Parenting Mentally Ill Children: Part 1

In the ages-old clash between nature and nurture, when it comes to mental illness, there is no right answer. Mental illness is often genetic; I’ve been asked by every doctor I’ve ever seen about family history of mental illness. Almost every disorder, too, is at least somehow affected by a person’s upbringing, from infancy to the dawn of adulthood. How an individual is parented will certainly contribute to whether or not they develop a mental illness and/or the manner and severity of the illness.

My dear friend Katie Suss, who has written for the blog brilliantly before, and I have been raised in two different ways by two very different sets of parents, but we both developed mental illness. The nature of our illnesses is as distinct as our upbringings, but we’ve both, over time, come to understand the impact that parents can have on a mentally ill child in our own, unique ways. In a question and answer format, we hope to be able to give two different perspectives on both parenting and being parented in the context of mental illness!

Did your parents grant you space, fully embrace your illness and daily life, or some combination? How closely should parents monitor a mentally ill child?

O: When I was in residential treatment, I sat in on a fascinating AA meeting in which an individual my age was lamenting the trust they had lost with their mother. They had twice overdosed on heroin and now their mother was extremely protective and often did room checks for needles. When asked, their mother would say that she was terrified she’d find the kid with a needle in their arm, again, and checked on them often, perhaps too much (according to the patient), as a result.

My experience with parental involvement is very much the opposite of this, but I can see both sides, as well as additional rationale. The mother had every right to be scared for and worried about her child, and any amount of fussing would be worth saving her child’s life (it also isn’t just heroin overdose that can kill a child, for any mental illness comes with some fatal risk, or at least risk of serious consequence). However, being overbearing brings with it two negative repercussions for the child: the child will resent the parent for “not trusting” them, and the child may not end up knowing how to function safely, independently. I can’t say which avenue I’d fully commit to if I was a parent. What I can say is that my tendency would be to lean in moreso than lean away. I suspect the negative repercussions I observed in my fellow patient were not only tangibly worth it, but helped them feel cared about, deep down.

K: In my house, it has long been a healthy combination, at least in my mind.  However, since every household and every child is different, I could see how my situation/my parents’ involvement could be viewed as over-involved: not on a level of distrust by any means, but more just active hyper-involvement.  However, this approach works for us for a few reasons: I am an only child of two married parents, and have always been incredibly close with both my parents, and my primary diagnosis is separation anxiety, and they were my two attachment objects.  

Objectively, though, I’d still say it is a healthy balance.  When I was younger and getting diagnosed, then especially through my subsequent bouts of anxiety, they actively looked for solutions without trying to fix me, which is the most effective blanket statement I can think of for all parents of mentally ill children.  There’s no magical solution; people are starting to realize how difficult it is for the person actually struggling with mental illness, but parents and family members are so deeply affected, too. No one enters parenthood (or guardianship) fully equipped to deal with this; it’s a process for all of us.  

The authors, Olivia and Katie.

How did your parents address body image and how did it affect your self perception?

K: To be completely honest, it was not an oft-mentioned topic in my house, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Both my parents have been on “diets” on and off several times, more for the purpose of being healthy than anything else.  I have always been naturally slim, so I have never been motivated to exercise often (or at all to be honest), go on crash diets, or excessively control what I eat.  In many ways, body image is not a topic I personally have had extensive positive or negative experience with. Many if the “all bodies are beautiful” message had been more applicable or imparted upon me, I would find myself internally judging others less – something that is definitely automatic and not at all intended, but that I think the burden of which falls to society.

We live in such a world of judgment and comparison, and our parents can’t help but absorb some of that, too – we’re all only human.  I think the key here is recognizing where we have been improperly socialized and trying to help the younger generation see things in a different light. I am lucky enough to have parents who tell me regularly that I am beautiful and who do not undermine my efforts to stay comfortable in my own skin, but even we are not perfect.  And that, parents and children alike, is not your fault, but we can all work to change it one positive comment at a time.

O:Body image was not always healthily explored within my family, nuclear and extended. Negative comments have been made at all weights and shapes, diets encouraged, and general attitudes about the body (female, in particular) have not quite lived up to the standards of the modern day body positivity movement.

This was not, though, the sole or defining source of my body dysmorphia or eating disorder. I house genetic predispositions to Anorexia, mostly stemming from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (a common parent to eating disorders). While comments and attitudes from family members certainly didn’t help, my eating disorder and dysmorphia aren’t really about my body. They are outlets for my obsessive/compulsive distress: tangible tunnels into which I can channel my fears and anxieties. There’s something to be said for the influence that my upbringing may have had on the fact that my OCD chose to manifest itself in Anorexia. However, I suspect that even if my family was the most progressive, body positive unit on Earth, I would still have developed Anorexia. That being said, all efforts should be made by parents to encourage their children to see their bodies in loving, positive lights, and to refer to food neutrally and/or positively. End of story.

How did your household composition affect your mental health?

O: This is a murky one for me. My parents are divorced, which is often a precursor to mental issues in children, for a variety of reasons. There are pros and cons to having divorced parents. I think though, overall (and they know this), I would rather have a collective, unified household, but I understand why divorces need to happen.

From my perspective, having a split household has been confusing. When I have issues, whether practical or emotional (and in the world of mental illness both are common) I’m often unsure of who to consult. Is one parent emotional, another logistical? Are they both some of each? Who should handle which issue? Deciding on one parent to “go to,” often seemingly at the expense of the other, summons a lot of guilt to me, and I do wish that I didn’t have to.

However, no happy marriages end in divorce. Divorces happen because the relationship, obviously, was no longer positive for one or both parties. As the saying goes, “if mama isn’t happy, no one is.” Thanks, mom, for teaching me that phrase. Applicable to both parents, it exemplifies the trickle-down (pinch me, econ enthusiasts) effect that parent happiness has on children. If a parental unit isn’t satisfied, that dissatisfaction leaks on down to the kids in obvious and subtle ways. While I viscerally wish that my parents lived together, and sometimes believe that it would be better for my mental health, I absolutely and ultimately acknowledge that the likelihood of anyone in such a situation being happy would be slim.

K: Once again, I am an only child with two happily married parents, and we all live together as a close-knit family unit.  Both my parents work full-time and I have no siblings to keep me company, but I have never felt lonely, neglected, or unimportant.  I do not appreciate often enough how lucky I am to have such a situation, and how that stability has filled my life with safety and love.  

However, this goes to show that mental illness can rear its ugly head in even the most healthy of environments.  That being said, having these two hardworking, active parents with all their eggs in my basket has made my journey smoother than it might have been otherwise.  Nowadays, I handle my everyday anxieties alone, consult them on troubling decisions, and know that they will always be there. We are not perfect by any means, and each have individual faults, but we try, and communicate, and love.  

As I write this, I am on family vacation, typing from a lodge in New Hampshire.  My mom is reading Michelle Obama’s new book five feet away and my dad is dozing in a chair by the fireplace.  Tonight we will have dinner then watch White Christmas in our hotel room. I think that about says it all.

One response to “Parenting Mentally Ill Children: Part 1”

  1. Perhaps having parents comment upon parenting within the context of your query would be elucidating. The effect of what you perceive to be parenting style and family system characteristics is clear in your question and answer format. The cause and effect relationships created within complex family dynamics is tough to clarify.

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