10 Ways Children of Mentally Ill Parents Can Break The Cycle

Published on: 02 Oct 2019
Clinically Reviewed by Cynthia V. Catchings LCSW-S
daughter trying to make mom smile

Many of us grew up with parents who battled mental illness, whether we realized it during childhood or not. Anxiety and depression are common mental illnesses our parents may have struggled with, which are often passed from one generation to the next. Your parent may also have dealt with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or addiction — all of which have a strong genetic link.

Maybe your parent or parents treated their mental illness and were able to live a healthy life while modeling healthy coping skills. Still, simply being exposed to mental illness is a risk factor for developing a mental illness of your own. If your parents did not treat their mental illness, you may have been exposed to abuse, trauma, or worse.

If you grew up with mentally ill parents, it may seem that pain, suffering, or developing a mental illness of your own is your destiny, and there is no clear path for breaking the cycle — but that just isn’t true. Recovering from a difficult childhood is possible and there are many steps you can take to live a vibrant, healthy, happy life, despite being raised by mentally ill parents.

Here are some tips.

1. Go To Therapy

Connecting with a caring, non-judgmental therapist can help you unravel your childhood experiences, and make sense of how they shape your current life. Understanding these experiences can be invaluable. Therapy doesn’t just mean wallowing in the past; your therapist will teach you tools for how to live your best life in the present.

2. Practice Mindfulness and Meditation

Our thoughts and “self-talk” have a lot to do with how we view the world and how we live our lives. If you tell yourself every day that your past experiences are what are going to make or break your current life — or even that it was your fault that your parent was mentally ill — you will begin to believe that. Practices like mindfulness and medication can help you identify the harmful thoughts that are weighing you down, and help you begin to change your inner narrative.

3. When Needed, Use Medication

Some children of mentally ill parents may be reluctant to take medication. But there is no shame in taking medication, either short or long term. It is important to do so under the direction of a doctor or psychiatrist who will check in with you periodically. Keep in mind that psychotropic medication works best when combined with talk therapy.

4. Accept Your Mentally Ill Parent

Accepting your mentally ill parent doesn’t mean that you accept the ways they have may mistreated or traumatized you. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that you will be in close regular contact with them, if that is difficult for you. But it means realizing that they battled a mental illness, and that this is not something you caused, nor is it something you are responsible for changing.

5. Boundaries!

Breaking the cycle with a mentally ill parent means having boundaries. Many parents who battle mental illness are pretty poor at listening to and upholding the boundaries you set for your own privacy and safety. But that doesn’t mean you should stop setting them or making it clear to your parent what they are to you.

6. Surround Yourself With Supportive People

Research has shown that a primary way children of mentally ill parents survive their childhoods is through supportive teachers, friends, and other grown-ups. You can continue that trend even past childhood and adolescence. Having grown up with a mentally ill parent may even make you more discerning about the types of people you surround yourself with. Keep in mind, you have every right to be picky and only choose people who treat you kindly.

7. Learn About Mental Illness

It can be very empowering to learn everything you can about the kind of mental health issues your parent or parents battle and that may run in your family. This may help you understand the causes, triggers, and most importantly, the best treatments for these mental illnesses, should you be challenged with them yourself.

8. “My Life Is My Own”

Having a mantra like, “This is my life to live,” “I can make a different life than the one I grew up with” can be really healing, especially if you find yourself facing self-doubt, guilt, blame, or anxiety. Always remember that you are the one who controls your life; no one else has that power over you.

9. Practice Prevention

If you know that mental health issues run in your family or you have already experienced them yourself, taking preventative measures to keep your symptoms at bay is vital. Even when you are not in a crisis situation, having regular self-care routines such as exercise, meditation, journaling, and therapy will mean that you are taking care of your mental health on a daily basis. Should any crises emerge, you will have the tools to get through them.

10. Believe In Yourself

Many of us who grew up with mentally ill parents were sent the message that we were incapable of living well, that we were somehow “damaged goods,” or that we were to blame for every difficult experience we had. This sort of thinking is exactly what stops many of us from being able to move forward with our lives. Once you realize that this was “all talk” and that you are capable of amazing strength and resilience, you can begin to break the cycle and live more fully.

Moving toward a place of health and strength after growing up with a mentally ill parent is a process, and you have to be gentle with yourself as you work through it. Just setting an intention to break the cycle — even sitting down to read an article like this one — is a huge step in the right direction.

With patience, self-love, and good support, you can live the life you always wanted. You deserve it.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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