Family & Mental Illness: When Children Become Our Caretakers


How To Overcome Addiction & Personality Disorders As A Family
Has your child begun to withdraw from the family?
Signs your child is affected by a parent's mental illness — and how to empower them to overcome it.

Does your partner have a mental illness or addiction? Are you wondering how it will affect your family? A recent survey of YourTango experts found that when one partner has a mental illness or addiction, the relationship benefits greatly from professional help:

  • 50 percent of YourTango experts agree that the single most important step married partners can take in the face of mental illness is to attend couples counseling together.
  • In addition, 90 percent of YourTango experts agree that addiction (to things like sex, drugs and alcohol) is the mental health issue which is most likely to shake a marriage to its core. 82 percent mentioned personality disorders (like antisocial, avoidant or borderline), and 68 percent mentioned mood disorders (like depression or bipolar disorder).

But the partner isn't the only one affected by the disruption that addiction and mental illness can create — the rest of the family suffers too. Children are much more aware of their environment than we often give them credit for. In many cases, they take on the caretaking role for a parent who is suffering from addiction or mental illness. They may even try to assist the spouse who is stressed by their partner's illness. Even when parents try their best to shelter their children from this instability, the family dynamic can severely emotionally affect them.

Here are five ways to identify if your child is being affected by addiction or mental illness:

1. Withdrawal. Your child begins to withdraw from family, friends, and activities they enjoy.

2. Emotional suppression. When you inquire about your child's feelings regarding what's happening in the family dynamic, they show no emotion or pretend everything is fine.

3. Self-destructive behavior. Your child begins showing self-destructive behavior such as injuring themselves or a change in eating habits. People often overlook when a child might be eating, or not eating, out of emotional stress.

4. Separation anxiety. Your child no longer wants to be away from you or your partner for any prolonged period of time. They may experience anxiety or fear while away from the family.

5. Caretaking. Your child begins to assume an adult role by making sure that everyone else's emotional and physical needs are met. Though this may not be your intention, for the child it adds a level of emotional control to feel that they are caring for and helping the family emotionally.

If you see some of these symptoms in your child, don't panic. Take some positive actions that can help your child and your family. The symptoms listed above are not just isolated in childhood; if not addressed early, some of these patterns can overlap into one's behaviors and relationships as an adult.

Here are some things you can do to empower yourself and your child in creating a happier, healthier family life despite the struggles of having addiction or mental illness in the family.

1. Therapy. You may be taking your child to some of the family therapy sessions, but it may greatly benefit them to go to therapy sessions on their own. Children tend to be more reserved about their feelings when they're in a room with their parents and a therapist. Therapy can also assist you with talking to your child.

2. Daily emotional routine. Make it a habit to check in with your children and find out how they are feeling. For younger children it could be as easy as an emotions chart. Each day they can show a face that symbolizes what they're feeling, which can help you start conversations with them and keep track of their emotional health.

3. Stress reduction. Introduce your child to stress reduction techniques like breathing, creative projects, or physical activities like yoga that promote a sense of calm and peace.

Most importantly go easy on yourself, your partner, and your kids. Living with addiction or mental illness is not easy, but if you can create a unified front where everyone's needs are being met, you can create a happy and healthy family life.

More marriage advice from YourTango:

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Article contributed by
Advanced Member

Laura Tirello

Wellness Coach

Laura Tirello

Founder of IBS Lifestyle and Wellness Coach

Location: Yardley, PA
Credentials: Other
Specialties: Chronic Pain/Disability or Illness, Health/Wellness, Stress Management
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