Mental Illness

Coping With Your Adult Child’s Mental Illness

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adult child with mental illness

When Their Mental Illness Threatens Your Sanity

One of the hardest things I found when my son was battling with his mental illness, was the sense of overwhelming stress and helplessness. Coping with your adult child and their mental illness can definitely cause your mental health to suffer.

I define stress as when you need to do something, but you can’t. Or you feel trapped and think there is nothing you can do. If you can find a way to take control of your situation, you will automatically alleviate some of the stress in your life. I promise.

Watching your child struggle, make mistakes and live in pain, are all devastating things for a parent. Add to that stress is the ongoing worry. We wonder if we did something to cause their mental illness and we worry about making it worse. Often, our situation exists side-by-side with their anger and recriminations. They may lash out, yell, call names and curse you.

I know what it feels like because I was caught in that cycle of worry, anger and pain. From the time my son hit puberty, he entered a dark place that he never entirely came out of. It took years to diagnose his mental illness and by then he was self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. I tried everything I could think to try; giving him support and the space to deal with his issues, ignoring the situation and even tough love by kicking him out. Nothing seemed to work, and I was at my wits end.

The Solution

I wish I could say I found a simple answer, implemented it and I felt all better. That my son then got better and went on to live a prosperous and healthy life. It would be a lie. I found ways to cope, but it never went away entirely. And my son? I lost him to suicide in 2015.

I know it is hard to talk about, but suicide is on all of our minds, isn’t it? Even if suicidal ideation is not a big part of whatever illness our child has, we worry. My son had a mental illness that made him feel like he was worth nothing and that everyone was laughing at him. Talking about suicide was not something he did often. In fact, there was only one time we talked about it. It was years before he died. But I still worried. Because I am a parent of an adult child with a mental illness and their mental illness threatens my sanity.

I’m not trying to bring anyone down, but I want to acknowledge that we are all in a tough place. Pretending otherwise is not helpful to anyone. So, what can you do?

Help

This might seem obvious but impossible. You need some help. You can’t do this alone. Whether it is a counseling group, a group of friends or family members, you need help. You need a place to vent, a place to rejoice in small victories and brainstorm ideas. This group also has to be willing to sensitively and lovingly call you out when you are falling into unhealthy patterns.

I have found it helps if I outline exactly what I want from a group when I am participating. If you just want to vent, say so. “I just want to vent, I’m not looking for solutions right now.” Is perfectly valid and a good support group will respect your wishes. But remember, if you find you’re saying that constantly, you need to look at your motivation for being there. At some point, you need to take a look at the issues and go into coping and problem-solving mode.

Other Kinds of Help

Another way of obtaining help may be through more formal means. Look into local programs or governmental assistance. If you are responsible for your adult child all the time and they can’t be left alone, is it possible to have someone stay with them? Is there a group of volunteers or is there money available to hire someone for a weekend? If you can leave your child alone or you don’t live with them, what about finding someone to be the contact person so you can go on vacation for a week or two?

Having a break, whether for an evening, weekend or weeks is important for your sense of well-being when coping with your adult child’s mental illness. If appropriate and if you think it will help, don’t allow your adult child to contact you. The person who is keeping an eye on them or being their contact person should be able to get a hold of you if there is an emergency only. You’re a separate person from your adult child and deserve to have time where your child’s issues aren’t intruding.

You Might Be the Wrong Person

This might be hard to face, but the fact is, you might not be the best person to help your child. You have a history and water under the bridge that may make it difficult for you to be helpful. That doesn’t mean you are a bad person or you have done something wrong; it simply means you are a parent.

It can be incredibly stressful trying to do something if you are simply not the right person for the job. If your adult child won’t get help for their mental illness, is there someone else they can talk to? A group? Family members? Friends that are not enabling their behaviour?

Self-Care

Yeah, yeah, I know. If you hear one more person tell you that you need to take care of yourself, you will explode. It is so easy for someone else to say when they aren’t in your situation. But the reason it comes up so often is that it is true.

No, your problems won’t all disappear with one bubble bath or meditation session, but we already know that, don’t we? The reasoning behind self-care is not to cure all your problems, but to make sure you are not going down with the (mental health) ship. You need to take time to refill your emotional, physical, mental and spiritual reserves.

Self-care can mean different things to different people; for me, self-care is about time alone to write, be in nature and sleep. For someone else, it might mean time out with friends, a spa pampering or going to a fancy restaurant. I created two sheets with ideas to inspire you with self-care ideas if you are interested in receiving them free.

The important thing is that you acknowledge that your health is important too. You do not exist for people to walk over and use. You do not exist as a handmaid to your adult child.

Boundaries

This is the real hard one. When other parents set boundaries for their adult children, the worst thing that can happen is their child gets mad at them. When we set boundaries for our mentally ill adult child, we may lose them forever. With that hanging over our heads, no wonder it is excruciating.

But here’s the thing. If you don’t establish boundaries with your child, you will stay entrenched in a power dynamic that is unhealthy for both of you. You will burn out trying to do it all and trying to save your child. Your child will resent you for treating them like a child. You will be their easy target when they become angry and that will only come back on them when they calm down.

I hate the expression tough love, because it brings to mind someone being tough on someone else. The fact is, establishing boundaries will help both of you. Your adult child will know clearly what you will put up with and what you won’t. They will test your newly set boundaries, but when you stick to them, they will know where the lines are drawn.

The certainty of clear lines will actually cause your child to feel safer. If they see you have no boundaries, then how are they supposed to know how to set their own? Or even feel safe?

Boundary-less

There is one place there should be no boundaries and you need to feel confident you have expressed this to your child. There are no boundaries on your love for them. No matter what they do, you will love them. You may not accept their behaviour and their behaviour may have consequences, but you will still love them.

If you were 100% sure that your adult child knew that your love had no boundaries, would that make it easier to set needed boundaries? Would it be easier to say that you will not accept being yelled and screamed at and called names?

If your child knows your love is boundary-less, it makes those you need to set up for your own mental health, pale in comparison.

Listen

This might seem like an odd way to end an article on helping you retain your sanity when dealing with an adult child who has a mental illness but bear with me.

One of the most important thing we as human beings need is to feel like someone understands us and hears us. Imagine being someone with a mental illness, how much listening do you think they experience? The truth is, most people see them as a problem to solve. Rather than trying to solve your child’s problems, have you tried just listening?

Give yourself a break and just listen. Don’t judge, offer suggestions or criticize. Just listen, then give them a hug and tell them that you heard them. Listening is a gift you can give them and a gift to yourself.

Go in Peace,

Carla Howatt is the mother of three adult children, a communications professional and an author.

If you have any questions or ideas that have worked for you, please don’t forget to comment! And don’t forget to check out our resource section!

4 thoughts on “Coping With Your Adult Child’s Mental Illness

  1. Thank you for your advice. I can see that I am not alone and I shouldn’t feel guilty to take time off for myself even if it’s just for an hour a day and that I should listen to my son more instead of trying to problem solve! Thank you for reminding me of that. May peace be with you as well!

  2. I think I may need a different kinda suggestions not sure but here is my 1 son, I have 3 all with mental problems. But the one I’m most worried about is my 39 year old son that is dyslexic and ADD and also sustained a brain injury in 2001. What can I do too help him? He is a classic person with a learning dissabilty. Almost no selfesteam and os not as intelligent as his 2 brothers. Then comes the horrific brain injury. The anger the bad bad words the verbal abuse he spews all the time. He cares nothing for anyone, and he makes that clear. He threatens everyone. He has issues he will not talk about because of fear of being put down. Most of that anger is directed towards me his mother. I guess he directed it all mostly to me is because he knows I’ll always be their for him. But as you and I know one of these days I won’t be here anymore. There will not be run to mommy for help.and safety. Well there is alot of behavioral things that I haven’t gotten to but if you are willing if be glad to talk to you. Thank you Lynette Murray

    1. I’m sorry to hear things are so rough right now Lynette. I can see a couple of the suggestions you might want to pursue – like finding some help, taking some time away or see if there is a service or a non-profit that can offer your child some help. It sounds like this could definitely fall under the category of him needing someone other than his Mom to work with him on things.

      Best of luck Momma!

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