The pain of parenting a child with mental illness

IIt was on a recent family trip to Dorset that Alison Miller first realized her daughter was seriously ill. The family were having lunch at a gastro pub near the coast and the 13-year-old apologized and did not return until later. Miller, 4, from south-east London, slipped into the women’s toilet to look for her and found the teenager curled up in a cubicle. “She was sitting on the floor, screaming and rocking because someone had activated the hand dryer.”

The mother-of-two says that before the pandemic, her daughter was a high achiever and confident person. A few months into the lockdown, she had become beset with extreme anxiety and phobias. Now 15, her daughter suffers from symptoms of severe mental illness, including dissociation, voice hearing and developmental regression. “My once capable, independent, intelligent young wife is a wreck. I can’t let her shop on her own, she’s so vulnerable now,” Miller said. The Independent.

Coping with her daughter’s illness drastically changed Miller’s life and in turn triggered her own mental health issues. “If she’s having a bad day, I’m falling so hard. Your well-being is tied to what’s going on with them. My anxiety and stress levels were at an all time high, I haven’t slept for ages and I was up at 3am on the phone with the Samaritans saying I didn’t know how to help her I don’t recognize my own life I had to let go of everything that made me who I was .

Then there is the grief. “The feeling of helplessness, that something terrible is happening and you have no control over it and there are no easy solutions, is really depressing and painful. There is this grieving process that is about coming to terms with the loss of the child you have,” Miller says.His daughter is currently undergoing therapy and medication, but the effect of her condition on family life is palpable.

The impact on parents whose children struggle with mental health issues is rarely discussed. And yet, the adage that a parent can only be as happy as their most unhappy child seems increasingly relevant. With children’s mental health at rock bottom, thanks to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns on their development and socialization, the connection is becoming more apparent than ever. Parents caring for increasingly sick children are seeing their own mental health deteriorate, reporting symptoms of depression, anxiety and detachment they have never felt before.

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It is inevitable that a child’s mental health will be affected by the well-being of their parents – the atmosphere at home and the ability of a mother or father to raise well have a profound impact – but new research from the University of Waterloo in the United States demonstrated how this relationship is even more likely to work the other way around. Dillon Browne, a professor of clinical psychology at the university and lead author of the study Families and Mental Health During the Pandemic, found that parents actually react negatively to a child struggling with their mental health. “Families’ mental health issues compound each other in a feedback loop,” he explains. “Our study suggests that the direction of influence appears to be from child mental health to parenthood, not from parenthood to child mental health.”

This finding raises huge questions for parents who report their own struggles following the sudden, often unexpected, upbringing of a child in psychological crisis.

Andrea*, 45, from Cambridgeshire, said she had been under enormous pressure on her mental health and that of her whole family, due to the changes she had witnessed in her 14-year-old daughter, which had been exacerbated by long waiting lists. for NHS mental health support.

“My daughter went from a happy teenager, to anxiety, self-harm, suicide attempts and now school rejection – in just one year. Some of these things can be normal for teenagers , but either way, his family is at sea. It affects every moment of my life. You’re just stuck at home wondering what to do and wondering if it’s just you.



It leaves me in tears and beaten. It’s hard to break the cycle

For others, the progression to poor mental health has been more visceral. Anna Blewett, 41, from Colchester, says her 10-year-old daughter developed tics and other symptoms of anxiety during the pandemic, and it had a profound effect on her own stability. “It’s disheartening to see my child caught up in anxious thoughts and worries on a loop. It sometimes feels like a quagmire that draws us all in,” she says. “As a parent, you worry about doing enough to protect your child from stressors, or if you’re just giving in to them.”

Blewett says she worried about whether or not she should force her daughter out of the house, on a trip to the supermarket ‘which makes her hyperventilate and vomit’, or instead ‘cocoon’ her to protect her from her pain, all the time doubting her own abilities as a parent. “I’m not really into introspection or rumination, but some days I feel like you can’t do anything right, and it’s really exhausting. My partner and I talk about his situation all the time. It sometimes leaves me in tears and beaten. It’s hard to break the cycle.

According to Dr Dora Bernardes, a senior lecturer in clinical psychology at the University of Exeter, the family unit is a complex and interdependent system and any small change within this system will affect everyone within it. “If one person is not well, it will impact the whole family,” she says. “We can feel scared, worried about them, we can feel helpless as parents and rejected, and it can activate our own worries. Parents will very often feel guilty and fail. They may feel a strong sense of shame.

The parental instinct to solve a child’s problem – to “take care of our little ones”, as Bernardes puts it – means that when a problem arises that cannot simply be solved, it can leave parents feeling inadequate. and become depressed themselves.

For Jessica*, 44, from West Sussex, whose children have struggled during lockdown, including falling asleep and becoming anxious, her well-being has declined dramatically. “I developed real adjustment problems and was almost suicidal at times,” she says. “I particularly noticed a social problem: paranoia that people didn’t like me and huge social anxiety.” She opted to take antidepressants, but also uses exercise to help her deal with her feelings and feel physically stronger.

The number of parents needing extra support for their own mental health is growing, according to Dr. Jen Wills Lamacq, a child psychologist and educator who works with students and their families. Schools are reporting that the pandemic has hit parenting hard, tipping some families from struggling to coping with real hardship. She says a first step to solving this problem is for parents to validate their own feelings; to admit that they are affected by their child’s illness, that it is natural, understandable and predictable.



As parents, we are kind of expected to be those endless containers that manipulate whatever our children throw at us.

“As parents, we’re sort of expected to be these endless containers that manipulate whatever our children throw at us,” she says. “As a parent, the responsibility is always yours, but during the pandemic it has really been brought home by many parents. We haven’t gotten rid of that feeling of isolation and the horror of feeling really alone.

For parents who notice a decline in their own well-being, Dr. Wills Lamacq recommends three steps: notice what events or issues in the family home trigger your own negative feelings; take time away from children; and seek support – whether that is formal support through therapy or support from local parents or family.

After confinement, many parents – and especially mothers – have lost the habit of finding time for themselves, and this is even more difficult when it comes to caring for a child in psychological distress. Returning to the hobbies they enjoyed before 2020 can help restore a sense of normalcy and calm. “These things have come out of our daily lives and it’s about being proactive in thinking about the possibility of getting them back and doing this thing that is really difficult: asking for help,” says Dr. Lamacq.

To deal with her own feelings, Blewett found effective coping mechanisms outside the home. “When the house feels like such an eggshell promenade, I find solace in simple physical labor: beating the weeds in the housing estate; lift the contents of the compost bin and relay it; go for a run,” she explains. She has also found support by talking to friends, with and without children, about what she is going through.

Dr Maria Loades, lecturer in psychology at the University of Bath, advises parents under pressure to “start well with the basics”: eat well, get as much sleep as possible and engage in some form of physical activity every day. Therapy is also encouraged to help understand and manage their emotions. This is easier to do today because there are so many free resources online, such as the guide for parents produced by Emerging Minds at Oxford University.

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There is something else to consider as well: how dangerous it is to merge the feelings of adults with those of their children. Counselor Louise Tyler says modern parents have become “entangled” with their children – a process she says has gone too far, with parents “kind of riding up in their distress with them,” she says. The answer is not to disengage, she says, but to find a “middle ground”.

Being open about the effect life with a child struggling with mental illness can have on a parent has also been a source of comfort and reassurance.

For Miller, a parenting class called Family Connections was a game-changer. It helped her accept that her daughter and her own life had changed — but that didn’t mean happiness couldn’t return for both of them. She has also found support online from other parents facing the same challenges, through the Parenting Mental Health Facebook group.

The number of members of the group doubled from 2019 to 2020, then from 2020 to 2021. During the pandemic, it increased from 6,000 to 25,000 members. When its members were asked what helped them take a step back and establish their own mental health, the majority said they found comfort and empathy online through a support group by peers. Members also recommended talking openly with friends and family, spending time away from home, taking care of yourself, and spending time alone.

Being open certainly helped Miller. “The more I open up to people, the more good things come to me,” she says. “This group taught me that self-care doesn’t have to be going to the spa for a day, it can be sitting down with a cup of coffee, it can just be saying no to something to relieve you of the pressure. “

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