Mental Illness

Guilt and My Adult Child’s Mental Illness

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Mental Illness in My Adult Child and My Guilt

When Your Child’s Mental Illness Brings Guilt

I’ve always joked that when a baby is born, the doctor should say congratulations and hand the parents their baby. That baby would have a bundle of guilt attached to it. When you learn your adult child has a mental illness, feeling guilty is almost automatic for many of us. You may think “mental illness in my adult child must be something I did.” After all, it was our job to raise, nurture and make sure they grew up okay, right?

The truth is that when your child’s mental illness brings guilt, it saps your energy. It’s because you spend more time worrying about ‘why’ than you do taking care of yourself and your child.

Did I Cause My Adult Child’s Mental Illness?

The short answer to this question is no. Unless you were chronically abusive, it is highly unlikely that you were the sole cause of your child’s mental illness. However, that doesn’t stop parents from feeling guilty when their adult child receives a mental illness diagnosis.

It’s not uncommon for mothers to wrack their memories for something they may have done wrong when they were pregnant. They wonder if their cold during pregnancy was something worse and they just didn’t catch it. Or they took an over the counter medication. Knowing that their doctor told them it was safe doesn’t stop them from wondering.

Parents may look back on their child’s school years and look for something that went wrong. Maybe they yelled at their child too much, maybe they were too lenient/strict. The list goes on and often times rational thought has little to do with it.

The Truth About the Cause of Mental Illness

If your adult child is diagnosed with a mental illness, it’s little comfort to learn that the causes are still uncertain. But one thing the medical community does agree is that it is likely not just one thing.

Our mental health is affected by a combination of things such as the environment, situations in our lives, and even genetics. Not one thing can be pointed to as the reason your adult child has a mental illness.

Environmental Causes

The environment may influence your child. If someone grows up in a society that values a slim female form, then they are more apt to develop an eating disorder. But does that mean that the environment caused the mental illness? Not by itself.

Situational Causes

What about situational factors? If your child faced a situation growing up that had a strong impact on them for example.  And it’s important to note that whether we see it as trauma or not doesn’t really matter. Maybe someone at school made fun of them or they were embarrassed in front of their peers. This can also be things like sexual or physical abuse or the loss of a loved one.

Genetic Causes

But what part do genetics play in your adult child’s mental illness? This is often a question that is top of mind for parents. What we know is people can have a vulnerability to developing certain types of mental illness based on their family history. Again, it tends not to be a definitive cause, but rather a contributing factor. But if your child has a mental illness that you have been told is definitely hereditary, please consult with a geneticist.

A good place to look for more information online are places like WebMD. Make sure that wherever you get your information, that it is from a credible source.

Then Why Do I Feel Guilty About My Adult Child’s Mental Illness?

It is only human nature to look for a reason why things happen. If we can only find out the reason, then we can regain a sense of control. What you know right now is that your child is hurting. Your world is turned upside down. Feeling guilty about your adult child’s mental illness is a way of trying to answer the “why” question.

As a society, we often blame parents for how their adult child turns out. Right or wrong, we tend to look to the parent. That means when something happens to our child, we look to ourselves. The problem is society looks to parents because they are trying to answer the “why” question themselves. If they can blame bad parenting, and they aren’t bad parents, then they are “safe” from this happening to them.

Unfortunately, trying to find out “Why?” won’t help because you’ll use valuable energy. This is energy you could put towards yourself and your child. Even if you’re able to determine what environmental, situational and genetic factors brought on your adult child’s mental illness, then what? You can’t go back and fix anything unless you are lucky enough to have a time machine (oooohhhhh, cool!).

Mental illness in your adult child is heartbreaking but trying to figure out how it happened is not helpful.

What Can I Do About the Guilt I feel from my Adult Child’s Mental Illness?

Happily, there are some things you can do to alleviate the guilt you may feel about your child’s mental illness.

Education – Do research about the causes of mental illness. There is nothing better than knowledge to wipe out these types of negative emotions.

Find Support – contact your local mental health association and see if you can find a support group. Many places have groups that are specific to certain mental illnesses.

Take care of yourself – self-care is critical right now and making a conscious effort to take care of yourself will help keep you mentally healthy. If you need some ideas for self-care, I invite you to sign up for my “Weekly Self-Care Tips for Parents” that I designed specifically with parents of adult children who have mental illness in mind.

As always, we encourage you to share your stories below. Who knows, maybe your story will help another parent?

Go in Peace,


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