Accepting a Child's Mental Illness

A large part of my work with families in the field of addictions is helping parents deal with the excruciating fact that a mental illness has afflicted their child. Sometimes I see these people in my office. Sometimes they come up to me in the street.

Posted on | Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, JD | Comments ()

A large part of my work with families in the field of addictions is helping parents deal with the excruciating fact that a mental illness has afflicted their child. Sometimes I see these people in my office. Sometimes they come up to me in the street.

Yesterday, a woman who I see regularly in my yoga class approached me with questions about her 16-year-old daughter. A psychiatrist said the daughter was depressed and prescribed her several medications. One of the medications was for depression. The other was for a mood stabilizer used in the treatment of bi-polar disorder (also known as manic-depressive disorder).

As you can imagine, the mother was distraught and angry. Not only was her daughter diagnosed with a mental illness, but she was also given powerful medications with severe side effects that she may need for the rest of her life.  

On the surface, the mother appeared upset about the medications. What was really happening, however, was that she was upset over the existence of her daughter's disease.

The process parents go through when their children are diagnosed with a mental illness mirrors almost exactly the 5-step mourning process that Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross outlined in her groundbreaking book On Death and Dying (1965). Similar to the process of losing a loved one to a physical illness, parents who are told their child suffers from a mental illness must mourn the loss of many of the dreams they have for their child. Central to these dreams is the desire that their child will be exempt from suffering and problems.

In educating parents through this loss, I typically observe them passing through the following stages before they find peace and begin healing from what initially feels like a hopeless situation:

  • Denial: The parent disagrees with the child's diagnosis, ignores the child's symptoms or reasons the child is "going through a stage."
  • Anger: The parent gets angry with the child or blames the other parent for the child's behavior. Comments in this stage include, "If only you'd act right" and "Just pull yourself together." Frequently, the parent also takes his or her anger out at the clinician by saying things such as "You don't know what you're talking about."
  • Bargaining: The parent tries to cut a deal with God or another human being that will eliminate or reduce the impact of the diagnosis. Typically parents in this stage say things like, "Ok, I'll do X, Y or Z if you make my kid better."
  • Depression: The parent begins to realize the mental illness is not going away and feels submerged in a bog of sadness, helplessness and despair over it.
  • Acceptance: In this phase, the parent reaches a state of benign surrender. The struggle is over and resources (emotional, physical and spiritual) begin to be channeled towards minimizing the problem and maximizing the solution.

While it's critical to pass through each stage of the process, the key to living productively with a mental illness is found by accepting that the disorder exists. Until a parent reaches acceptance, he or she will be unable or unwilling to provide the compassionate boundaries that instill in the child a sense of love, safety and support.

A rich and meaningful life is granted on the condition that we live it. In living it, we are often faced with disappointments and challenges that question our capacity to bear. Without out a doubt, a diagnosis of a mental illness that comes in a child's life is devastating to a parent, but it needn't be an incurable sentence of despair.

By taking time to acknowledge and process the pain that leads to acceptance, a parent will be honoring their own truth while modeling compassionate understanding for their child. In this process, all will grow. In this growth, all will heal.

Blog written by Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, JD
Paul Hokemeyer is a licensed attorney, researcher and Marriage and Family Therapist who works with individuals, couples and...