In a professional career as a psychotherapist working with children and families for nearly forty years, I have seen many troubled people – both children and parents. I have come to the conclusion that just as being a mentally healthy parent does not assure the raising of a mentally healthy child, a parent with a serious mental illness may be able to raise an entirely mentally healthy child. The variables are very important. Three of the most seminal ones are described in the following paragraphs.
The key variables tend to be in one of three camps; That of the parent, that of the child, and that pertaining to the larger world in which the child dwells.
The Key Variable Pertaining to the Parent:
The greatest risk to the well-being of a child in this area would be a situation where the parent has a serious mental illness and, for one reason or another, is not being treated for it.
People who have Major Depression, Bipolar and some Thought Disorders can often be successfully treated with a combination of medication and psychotherapy. While actively participating in treatment, the pre-treatment rampage of symptoms caused by the psychiatric condition is brought under control. Many times, the person is able to lead a regular life. This would include being able to be an appropriate and responsible parent.
Of course, for that to be realized, the parent would have needed to present themselves for treatment and commit to a regular course of professional intervention.
Left untreated, most major mental illnesses can and often do have a debilitating and sometimes devastating impact on the development of children in that parent’s care.
The Key Variable Pertaining to the Child:
Each adult and child has a certain amount of what we call ‘resiliency.’ This is, clinically speaking, the ability to tolerate life’s rough spots without being permanently knocked down or indelibly damaged by them. Some children seem to be born with more resilience than others. The differences can be observed even between siblings. The stronger the child’s resilience, the more apt the child will be able to tolerate and survive inconsistent or even inappropriate parenting.
The same parent with the same psychiatric condition and behaviors can raise two children who grow up quite differently. One may be highly reactive to the parent’s illness and either develop some form of that disorder for themselves or react with the onset of a different but clearly reactive illness to that of the parent. A sibling may seem relatively unaffected by the parent’s condition. The variable of individual resiliency is at work.
The Key Variable Pertaining to the Child’s Larger World:
Rarely is the home the only place that a child spends time nor is their parent the only adult they spend time with. Children with a mentally ill parent can sometimes insulate themselves a bit by regular contact with other adults. A reliable, attentive and supportive relationship with a teacher, relative, coach, neighbor or other parent can help a child maintain their own balance in even the most difficult situations.
A child learns pretty early on that not all adults are the same. The availability of healthy role models outside the home can prove to be of the essence for a child with a parent suffering from a serious psychiatric condition.
The opportunities to experience success at school or in other activities, to make and keep good friends and to enjoy the company of others also portend well for a child being raised in a higher-than-ordinary risk environment.
Can the Child be OK?
Each parent is different and so is each child. There is not a “one size fits all” rule when it comes to what happens when a child has a parent with a serious mental illness. If the illness is being treated and the child’s resiliency is good, the situation is far from hopeless.
Complimented with the availability of at least one significant other adult, many children will endure the parent’s psychological difficulties.