I have a major mental illness and I’m a parent. These two things do not have to be incompatible with each other. According to the stigmatizing stereotypes, I should be destitute and unable to maintain relationships. In reality, I’m married and have a daughter, 11, and son, 10. I have a great relationship with all of them.
I was already married and both of my children born when an eccentric personality seemed to grow into something else. Eventually I would be diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, amongst other mental health maladies.
Through trial and error, copious amounts of research and the help of professional therapists and psychiatrists I’ve managed to maintain myself as a good parent and partner. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way:
- Don’t keep your mental illness a secret from your family
My condition is at times very severe, and my kids are very perceptive. Hiding my condition from them is not an option for us. So, we opted to bring them in on it in kid-friendly language. They know about my condition in vague terms such as “Dad has thought monsters.” Rather than placing an unbreachable gorge between us, we have been brought closer to each other.
- Don’t keep your mental illness a secret
If your kids are in the loop, your secret is going to get out anyway. My 5th grade daughter put in her autobiography, “Dad was hit in the head and now he sees and hear things that aren’t real!” This is only a partial truth, my schizoaffective disorder manifestation is much more complicated, but with the kids we have kept our story simpler and understandable.
My feeling is that expecting your kids to keep such a big thing a secret puts them in a very tough position. First off, kids are bad at keeping secrets. Second, and more importantly, they may need to seek out a trusted confidant to discuss their own feelings on the matter.
- Make your kids part of your support network
You’ve now placed a large amount of trust in your kids and are treating them like the eventual grown-ups that they will be. When you are weak, they can be part of your support network now. My kids are a huge comfort to me when I’m having an off day. Once in a while, the wisdom of youth can be surprisingly insightful!
- Learn who you can rely on, and rely on them
For me, this is mainly my wife. My paranoia can grow very severe and I am very slow to trust anyone no matter what their actions are. I can’t always be there, no one can. But with a severe mental illness there are going to be more times than normal that you are emotionally incapable of being the kind of parent that you want to be. In a marriage the obvious answer is a supportive spouse who can pick up the slack. Without a supportive spouse, you are going to have to find other people to rely on, be it the parents of your children’s friends, a neighbor, grandparent, or someone else.
- Never betray their trust
I learned from 15 years as an Army officer that the best way to gain respect and trust is to give it out. It’s a two-way street. If you are placing a tremendous amount of trust in your kids by bringing them in on your mental illness, then they are going to be placing a lot of trust back on you. What a terrific problem to have: your kids trusting you! Trust is easily lost and very difficult to regain. You need to treat this trust as something precious and do everything you can to not betray it.
- Know when to walk away
This is essential. A mental health condition can easily become too complicated for a kid to understand. At times you need to shelter your kids from yourself. This means that if you are having a bad day you need to be able to wall yourself away in the room, go out for a long drive, send your kids away to a grandparent’s or friend’s place or find another way to gain separation. This will be a lot easier if you have found people that you can rely on.
- Know that at times you are going to fail
Being a parent is tough. Having a mental illness is tough. Together they are very difficult and you are going to fail. You need to accept it. Don’t wait until you fail to try and pull yourself up by your boot-straps. Use your best days to prepare for your worst days.
- Help them to understand what is happening with you
Talk with them about your condition. It is paramount to educate yourself as much as possible about your condition. It is nearly as important to educate the people in your closest support network. With all of this two-way trust your kids are going to want to talk with you about what is going on. This will help them to understand what is happening on your bad days and limit the amount of self-blame on their part for any issues that will arise from time to time.
- Trust that they love you, too
In my case, it is easy for my schizophrenic paranoia to convince me that people hate me. I fight back against this as hard as I can when it comes to the people closest to me, especially my family. If you’re reading this article then it is a safe bet that you really care about your family and are concerned about their well-being. Don’t forget that your kids love you, too.
- Don’t stay focused on the genetic nature aspect of mental illness; you can still do something about the environmental nurture aspect
It took me a long time to stop feeling that I was a bad person for having kids and a mental illness with a genetic component. In my case, I had kids first and then developed this condition, so it really was out of my hands. I think it’s very important to not focus on the possibility of passing something genetic on to them. Many mental health conditions have a nurture aspect to them as well, and as a parent you have a lot of control over this aspect. In the case that your kid does develop your condition, who would be better suited to help them with it than a caring parent with the same disorder?
- Make the illness, not the person, the enemy
We had to learn quickly as I went from a seemingly healthy, though conflicted person to a psychotic patient in a psychiatric ward in a few hours. During my four-week recovery period, my spouse and I learned that it would take both our efforts to take care of me from then on out. We had to keep a mental separation between me and my mental illness, keeping in mind that we were not one in the same. My mental illness is our enemy that we all work together to fight against. I am not the enemy.
- Don’t make your mental illness the center of your kids’ world
Finally, all of this said, don’t make your mental illness the center of your kids’ world. Seek out and find the good stuff in life and do everything you can to surround them with it.
I don’t believe that I’ve cracked a code here, this is the list that works for me and my family. I’m not an expert. My sample size for this study is one – my own family! This is what has worked for us and our specific relationships and sets of circumstances. You’ll have to take my advice as just that: advice, which should always be taken with a grain of salt and adapted to your own situation.
I would love to see in the comments how others successfully navigate their mental illness while having a family.
About the Author: Brad Pietzyk was retired as a Major in the US Army for schizoaffective disorder bipolar type. He spends his time focusing on his family, his mental health and blogging about his condition. His blog, www.someofthisistrue.com, focuses on living the best life he can with a serious mental health condition. He’s currently looking for opportunities to advocate for mental health issues – that is, when he’s not dressing up as Star Wars characters!
Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash
The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.
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3 thoughts on “Parenting with a Mental Illness – My Lessons Learned”
I found this to be quite helpful and it gave me great insights on understanding mental illness from the perspective of a parent. I think many of your strategies sound quite practical. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks Lisa – I tried to write items that could be applied for someone with a mental illness, someone partnered with someone with a mental illness or even a “neurotypical” parent. I’m glad you enjoyed the article and found it helpful. I have a ton like them on my blog at http://www.someofthisistrue.com. My goals with it are simple: inform people about my brands of mental illness to help reduce stigmas one reader at time; help people who experience mental illness; and, primarily, be a therapeutic outlet for myself.
You’re so right about not keeping it a secret. I’m 64. We did shield our kids from my mental illnesses. They’re grown now with families of their own. I see my oldest struggle but he refuses to even discuss the possibility that he shares any of my diagnoses. Why would he? I gave him the perfect role model of hiding it. But I think what he learned was denying it. There’s not a small amount of guilt that comes with that.