The Effects of Parental Mental Illness on Children and the Need for Healing

Ivy McQuain had two sons she loved more than anything. “I thought I was the best mother in the world. I was home when they got home. I went to college and earned my degrees. I had a business. To the outside world, I was an outstanding mother,” she writes in a moving essay for The Mighty. In addition to her beautiful boys, Ivy also had bipolar I disorder, and although she had a formal diagnosis, she didn’t get help. “I wanted my boys to see me as strong and a fighter,” she writes, and in her mind, strong fighters didn’t seek mental health treatment.

But where she wanted her sons to see strength, they saw stubbornness. They saw instability and strife, unpredictability and pain. They saw an adversary who would “fight with them over the simplest things,” a woman who was driving them away. Instead of appreciating her hard work and sacrifices or admiring her determination to be a good mother, they began distancing themselves from Ivy and acting out. “My refusal to get help never crossed my mind when my youngest got suspended or when my oldest became introverted.” Although she couldn’t see it, the effects of her bipolar disorder were seeping into the behaviors of her children, winding their way into their psychological makeup. It wasn’t until her eldest moved out and stopped calling her “Mom” that she realized something was very wrong.

When I asked him why, he told me I was hard to live with during his childhood and that I caused him great stress. I was floored; I thought I had given him the world. It was then that I realized that my refusal to get help for my bipolar disorder affected my children.

Rebuilding their relationship took time. It also took seeking professional treatment for Ivy’s bipolar disorder, allowing her to finally achieve the emotional stability to be the kind of mother her children desperately needed.

Refusing Help


There are infinite reasons you may be reluctant to seek help for mental illnessI’m not weak, I don’t need it. I can get better on my own. I don’t want anyone to think I’m crazy. I don’t want to spend the money. I don’t have time. I can’t leave my family. I like the way I am. Acknowledging the reality of your illness and its impact on your life can be frightening, and can elicit emotions you’d rather not deal with. Even if you do realize the extent of your own suffering, the prospect of unraveling it can seem overwhelming and exhausting, and you may tell yourself that you can handle it alone. When you have children, however, your mental illness is never yours alone; the effects of parental mental illness on children can be deep-reaching and devastating.

Impaired Parenting and Family Discord


Children crave love, affection, attention, stability, and guidance, and untreated mental illness can interfere with your ability to provide those—despite your best efforts. “[Mental illness] does have an impact on our ability to parent,” says Chaya Kulkarni, director of Infant Mental Health at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. “If we’re not emotionally available to our child, especially young children, we are going to miss their cues that say, ‘Hey, I need you to be my mom right now.’” In other words, your own suffering may prevent you from responding to your child’s needs in a healthy and productive way. While the exact challenges you face depend on the nature and severity of your illness as well as your personal circumstances, a 2012 study published in the Medical Journal of Australia noted that all forms of mental health disorders may disrupt positive parenting behavior:

For example, fathers with depression spend less time with their infants than fathers without depression. There is also evidence that anxious parents are less likely to grant their children autonomy and more likely to demonstrate lower levels of sensitivity. Other research found a significant association between maternal mental illness and permissive parenting (lack of parenting confidence, lack of follow through) as well as verbal hostility.

In addition to direct parenting behaviors, untreated mental illness is strongly associated with general family discord, marital difficulties, and a chaotic home environment, presenting additional risks for your children’s well-being. As noted by Dr. Lisa J. Slominski, marital problems may be particularly damaging to your child’s emotional development:

Marital discord may compromise children’s sense of mastery by exposing them to stressful interpersonal circumstances over which they have little control, yet may still feel responsible. This may then undermine children’s sense of social competence and may contribute to difficulties in coping with stressful situations.

Without healthy models for healthy individual and interpersonal functioning, children often struggle to establish a sense of psychological and behavioral cohesion, and are left with a limited toolbox of coping skills.

The Impact of Untreated Parental Mental Illness


For the 20% of children who have a parent with a mental illness, the lack of secure, consistent parenting, parental distress, and exposure to marital difficulties can have numerous, significant consequences on emotional and behavioral health, including:

  • Assuming onerous caretaking responsibilities for you and any siblings
  • Impaired social functioning
  • Poor academic performance
  • Mood disturbances and poor emotional regulation
  • Feelings of anger, anxiety, and guilt
  • Social isolation as the result of shame and stigma
  • Increased risk of drug use and poor social relationships

Research has found that these effects can be long-lasting, affecting both children and adults whose parents struggle with mental health disorders. As children mature and become aware of the genetic underpinningsof many mental health disorders, they may begin to worry that they too will develop a mental illness, sometimes causing serious anxiety and hypervigilant monitoring of their own emotional experiences. As Susan Nathiel, author of Daughters of Madness: Growing Up and Older with a Mentally Ill Mother, says:

Women growing up with very depressed mothers feared becoming depressed, and women with bipolar mothers were fearful of both depression and also being ‘too happy’ – which might mean they were becoming manic. A couple of the women whose mothers were schizophrenic had fear of developing that illness, often more intensely when they reached the age their mother was when she became ill.

Nathiel also notes that for some, the fear of repeating the damaging pattern of untreated mental illness causes adult children to choose to not have kids of their own, not for lack of desire, but out of overwhelming anxiety.

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Helping Parents Heal


Parental mental illness doesn’t have to be a negative force in a child’s life, and having a mental health disorder doesn’t mean that you are a bad parent. It does, however, mean that you need support to help overcome your psychological struggles and nurture your relationship with your children. “Is every parent who has mental health issues going to be a bad parent? No, absolutely not,” says Kulkarni, “The key is to make sure that you are getting treatment.” Ivy McQuain agrees:

I want parents who live with mental illness to get the help they need. To include their family in their treatment plan and to forgive themselves for anything they did while unmedicated. I want you to be honest with yourself and with your kids about mental illness. I need you to prepare them for all that it entails. To tell them about the stigmas that are placed on people with mental illness. They need you, so you need to get help.

Successfully coping with the experience of mental illness through comprehensive treatment can be an extraordinary lesson in courage, resiliency, and the power to make meaningful change. If you are a parent struggling with mental illness, reach out. There are excellent resources available to help you start your journey toward wellness, including residential treatment programs with the expertise to create personalized treatment plans that take into account your unique needs as a parent and help you nourish your relationship with your family. With the right care, you can heal from the pain of mental illness and establish the psychological tranquility you need to create a better life for both yourself and your children.

Bridges to Recovery provides residential treatment for people struggling with mental illness as well as co-occurring substance abuse and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our innovative program and to find out how we can help you find healing and hope. We are always available to provide any support and guidance you need to move toward restored wellness.