3 Pragmatic Tips for Dealing with a Parent With Mental Illness

Are you the adult child of a parent with mental illness?

Me too.

In this article, you will find helpful ideas for having a rewarding and functional parent-child relationship even with the knowledge that it may never be typical.

The word child evokes the idea of being taken care of and nourished, yet often we must assume the role of caregiver and custodian of the relationship. No matter how much we want the possibility of a normal relationship (whatever that might be), it’s usually not attainable. This does not necessitate despair but it does imply a need for practicality.

Like you, I’ve spent a lot of time wishing that my relationship with my mentally ill parent was better or different. I’ve blamed both my parent and myself for periods of discord, but the blame and associated guilt have been wasted energy. I found solace in Deepak Chopra’s (2010) counsel:

“If you wait for another person to change things, or themselves, you may wait forever. You must arrive at self-sufficiency, which is the realization that you are enough. You never need another person to complete you. Once this truly sinks in, you will stop asking others to change in order for you to feel better. It’s not their responsibility; it doesn’t show how much they care; and no matter how hard they try, you might wind up feeling bad anyway.” – Deepak Chopra

Allow me to repeat two key points rephrased…

  • If I wait for my mentally ill parent to change, I may wait forever.
  • It is not their responsibility to make me feel better. It doesn’t show how much they care, and no matter how hard they try, I might wind up feeling bad anyway.

This realization forced me to acknowledge the animosity I have toward my mentally ill parent for not being the parent I’ve wanted them to be. It also helped me recognize that I must let go of the desire to hurt them back for all the times they’ve hurt me.

Initially, I resisted relinquishing these feelings because I was comfortable in the blame zone where my mentally ill parent was the villain. In the end, however, my love for them defeated any desire I had to keep feeding my unhealthy attitude. I knew I had to shift my thinking and create a paradigm wherein a functional and practical relationship is possible.

3 Pragmatic Tips for Dealing with a Parent with Mental Illness

Inspired by this new awareness, and with Chopra’s wisdom in my pocket, I have outlined below three guideposts you and I can follow when we become frustrated with our mentally ill parents:

1. We must relinquish the desire that our mentally ill parent will change

Let’s be honest, they may not possess the capacity for change. Merely surviving day-to-day and maintaining an existence often takes up all of their energy. It is not their responsibility to change so we can feel better. It is our responsibility to accept their limitations.

2. We must stop expecting an acknowledgement or apology they may not be capable of offering

Chopra is on point when he reminds us that no matter how hard the offender tries to make it up to us, at some point they will likely let us down again and we’ll just feel bad, again – unless we are taking accountability for our reactions. An apology doesn’t necessarily show how much they care.

3. We must either act ourselves to improve the relationship or we must simply accept the relationship as it is

We do not need these relationships to be complete. It is enough for us to know we love our parents and always will. We may have to relinquish the role of child and the right we feel we have to that role but it’s okay. Our relationship does not have to be traditional for it to be functional, it only has to be practical, which is defined differently for all of us.

Remembering that we cannot control our parents’ actions or their capacity for change provides a space where we can relinquish self-judgment for the times when we feel we are failing our parents or ourselves. As we shift the paradigm through which we view the relationship, we build a platform for a practical and rewarding connection.

* These guidelines are not intended to oversimplify complicated mental health issues but rather provide a pragmatic approach to building and maintaining functional relationships with our mentally ill parents.

References: Chopra, D. (2010). The soul of leadership: unlocking your potential for greatness. New York, NY: Harmony Books.

Related Resources

3 Pragmatic Tips for Dealing with a Parent With Mental Illness

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4 Responses

  1. There were no obvious signs my father would one day awake and not understand his life as it was, dementia robbed my father and I of having a happy ending. My father is in a safe and comfortable living situation and I am thankful for this. I am unable to see him, mentally I can’t get past he doesn’t know me, doesn’t recognize me, despite the obvious side effects of the disease. I do connect with him in other ways, through a brief and friendly phone call, and to make sure his needs to be more comfortable are met. I feel guilty, my dad did so much more for me, but for some reason I’m unable to do that for him.

  2. I am the parent and I have the mental illness of depression. I have two children and now grandchildren. I lived my life for my children when they were little and felt extremely capable of meeting their needs. When they became teenagers, that is when they out grew me and I struggled to know how to handle things. I could not relate because my own teenage years left me stunted, without any memory of that time in my life because of alcoholic, abusive parents that could not meet my needs. Everyday, I feel I fall short of my children’s expectation of me and I feel like I failed them. I feel disconnected from them and feel they are ashamed of me because of my depression and the different ways it has an effect on my ability to be engaged and available. It is hard to face my own truth and accept who I am today. I have good days and bad days. I have always said that, “When I am on, I am on! and When I am off, I am really off! I have to keep trying even though I want to give up. Thank you for the Daily Positive.

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