In 2014, the National Survey of Drug Use and Health found that 12.8 million parents (18.2%) in the United States had a clinically diagnosed mental illness. Mental illnesses commonly experienced by these parents include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder. Given that one family member’s mental illness affects other family members in the household, the children of parents with a mental illness are at risk for adverse outcomes.
Children of parents with a mental illness may face a variety of unique challenges, including the child taking on a caregiving role for their parent, social isolation, persistent trust issues, shame, and a strained parent-child relationship. Furthermore, children who have a parent that suffers with a mental illness may be at an increased risk for developing mental, developmental, or emotional challenges in adulthood. So, for children who may struggle to adapt to their parent’s mental illness, what steps can be taken to promote well-being? Part of the answer lies in the construct of self-compassion.
Self-compassion is one’s ability to be kind, understanding, and accepting of themselves in response to a personal failure or imperfection. Self-compassion is important for children of parents suffering with mental illness because it is a skill that can be learned to help bolster mental health. Recent research has helped to identify three key themes of self-compassion that are related to improved children’s well-being: (1) common humanity vs. isolation, (2) mindfulness vs. concealing emotions, and (3) self-kindness vs. self-judgement. Each of these themes closely relate to the experiences of children of parents with a mental illness and highlight opportunities to help this population overcome the challenges they face.
Common Humanity vs. Isolation
Common humanity refers to the belief that all people experience suffering. Children of parents with a mental illness who hold this belief may feel less shame regarding their parents’ condition and may disclose their related experiences with peers. However, many of these children isolate themselves from others (i.e., not telling friends or peers that their mom or dad has a mental illness) because they feel something is “wrong” or “different” about their family compared to others. This perspective may reflect social stigmas regarding people with mental illness and how those stigmas contribute to internalized shame for family members. However, disclosure of family circumstances and personal struggles among children who share the same experience of having a parent with mental illness helps these children to develop their own sense of common humanity as they learn that they are not alone.
Mindfulness vs. Concealing Emotions
Mindfulness refers to the balanced observation of negative thoughts and feelings without denial or suppression and contributes to positive well-being. This is something that many children of parents with mental illness struggle to do, as some report concealing their emotions to cope with their experiences (which may contribute to poorer well-being), rather than facing them directly. However, many other children engage in tasks that help them be mindful of their feelings, such as disclosure to a trusted friend, journaling, or listening to music. Mindfulness is a teachable coping skill that can be incorporated into children’s daily routines to better monitor their feelings and acknowledge when they may need to reach out for help from others.
Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment
Self-kindness refers to the ability to offer oneself warmth and understanding, rather than judgement or criticism, particularly during times of struggle. Some children of parents with mental illness report feeling worthlessness, self-hate, and self-blame, as they assume responsibility for the care and mental health status of their parents. Although avoiding such thoughts can be challenging for these children, some cope by offering condolences to themselves for their struggles. Upon reaching adulthood, the children may establish boundaries with their parents, redistribute responsibility for the well-being of the parents, and invest in positive relationships that foster self-esteem. In this way, self-kindness is a tool to cope with their parents’ mental illness.
Overall, children of parents who suffer with a mental illness may face many challenges that place them at risk of developing their own mental health issues later in life. This population is more likely to isolate themselves from peer groups due to feelings of shame, to internalize and dismiss their negative emotions, and to feel undue responsibility (and therefore blame) related to their parents’ mental health concerns. However, there are opportunities to help these children develop a stronger sense of self-compassion.
Participating in support groups for children of parents who suffer with a mental illness may offer these children a safe environment to disclose their emotions and recognize that they are not alone. Furthermore, teaching mindfulness strategies through targeted activities (e.g., meditation, art, journaling) may help children better recognize and manage their emotions. Finally, helping children realize that they are not entirely responsible for their parents’ well-being, and giving themselves room for forgiveness may help to overcome any sense of blame or shame they may feel. Importantly, there are resources available both for children and for their parents struggling with mental health concerns. Resources and services for parents are targeted toward improving their individual and family well-being through organizations like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Mental Health America, and the Center for Parent Information and Resources.
Children of parents with a mental illness face a greater risk of mental health challenges, but they can overcome the obstacles they face to lead happy, fulfilling lives. However, they have unique needs that must be addressed to promote positive adjustment. Although there may be several ways to address these unique needs, by refining self-compassion skills and utilizing available resources and services, children of parents with a mental illness may find a path to a fulfilling life despite the many challenges they face.