For a child, it can be frightening and puzzling and almost unbearable to witness mental illness in a parent. When the disease took over my wife it had a life of its own. It took over her body. She looked like mom but wasn’t any longer. To her kids, it meant betrayal, abandonment, self-blame, and a source of family shame.
No wonder kids, in particular, are at risk when a parent is mentally ill. It’s not like cancer or diabetes. Very often they can’t even talk about it because, if they do, they get ostracized by their peers and other adults who wonder if it’s “contagious.”
Worldwide, 15-23% of children live with a parent with mental illness. These children have up to a 50% chance of developing it too, say doctors in the July 2017 issue of Current Opinion in Psychiatry.
Yet “preventive interventions in children of mentally ill parents may decrease the risk of problem development by 40%,” the researchers add.
For our family, when my wife became mentally ill and was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar, besides alcoholism, I became the single parent of three very young, vulnerable kids—twins who were three and their brother, nine.
Here are eight ways I kept things as solid, steady, and secure as possible for my own kids and how to help yours weather the tempest of a parent’s mental illness:
1. Keep Things Stable
Kids need stability for psychological health. But a mentally ill parent is the opposite of stable. At one point, my wife tried to make me fire our nanny, Eugenia, who, it turned out, proved a cornerstone of that much-needed stability. A gentle person, Eugenia took over many of the responsibilities usually filled by a mother. But this presented a problem. The kids had become attached to Eugenia, which created additional paranoia. Their mom called me at the office in a panic.
“Eugenia is trying to kidnap the kids. Come home right away.”
I rushed home only to find my wife holding a bottle of tequila, standing in her art studio. She demanded I fire the nanny.
“She’s stealing the kids. Stop her.”
I refused; my wife went out on the lawn where Eugenia was standing with the twins at her waist. Their mom began screaming she’d call la migra and have Eugenia deported. The twins, clutching Eugenia’s waist, began crying, “Don’t fire mama,” which only enraged their real mother more.
I didn’t fire Eugenia, which was the best thing I could have done. As it turned out, she had her own rich family life. She and her husband took the twins with them to places like the harbor at San Pedro to feast on crab legs; to sleep over their apartment; to enjoy carne asada barbecues with relatives from Guatemala; and to make sweet corn tamales for the holidays…
This alternative family gave stability to our own life.
2. Get Legal Help
Perhaps my experience was an exception, but I don’t think so. My wife tried to ram my car with the kids in it; threatened to burn down our publishing office; broke every first floor window—and the list could go on. I obtained a restraining order and, at the hearing, was given permanent legal and physical custody. My wife could no longer come into the home or office. It was a way of taking control to protect our lives.
Therapy for children of mentally ill parents is not a panacea; it is hard work. By providing my own kids with the opportunity to see a therapist, I helped them to work through their mother’s illness and complex issues such as self-blame, anger, betrayal and family shame, and to speak honestly to somebody other than me, their parent.
4. Be Part of Your Community
Make your neighbors and friends your extended family. In our little mountain community, interdependence is as natural as purple sage, coyote brush, and sandstone peaks; my kids enjoyed art, theater, dojos, dance, and even fencing. When my daughter learned belly dancing, her teacher spent hours choosing their costumes and treated her as another daughter. A sensei taught my youngest son about staying calm even when kids at school taunted him about his “crazy” mommy.
5. Give Them Peer Support
Kids of mentally ill parents need a safe environment where they can go to express their darkest and most frightening fantasies, thoughts, and questions, and be with kids who will empathize with them.
6. Get a Therapy Pet
Therapy with canines, equines, and other animals is part of accepted therapy for traumatized children. The animal is a companion they can talk to, hold, love, soothe, and it goes both ways. In our own case, a rescue border collie helped my youngest son to become gentler and compassionate. For my oldest son it was a bearded dragon. I think in some ways their pets taught them more than almost anybody.
7. Get Rid of Self-Blame
Teach your kids the three Cs about their parent’s illness: 1) they didn’t cause it 2) they can’t control it and 3) they can’t cure it. The kids continued to hold out hope for their mom. But over time the truth of the three Cs was liberating.
8. Be Your Best Through it All
Through it all, we, the healthy parent, must always try to be our best. That means making lunch the night before, getting them to school, doing birthday parties (which can be awkward when it’s a single dad with all the moms) and arranging play dates—even when things seem bleak and hopeless with your own relationship.
But it also means taking care of yourself. Maybe that means getting a weekly massage, enjoying a night out with friends, ice skating, learning an instrument or a new language, going to the gym, or visiting a therapist for your own emotional and psychological needs.
More than a decade has passed since their mom was diagnosed. It’s different, of course, to have a new normal. But someplace near normal is a good place to be.
These little thoughts are snowflakes, I’m sure, but, if your spouse is going through mental illness, I hope the lessons I learned will help your kids as much as they did mine.