Effects of Living and Caring for Mentally-Ill Parents

We all know that in a fully functional family, every member of the family must be able to act and play the roles that they have as best as they can. It means that every person can function in their daily lives and fulfill all the responsibilities that they carry. The family is called functional when they have good cohesion, flexibility, and communication

But what if the parents of the family are mentally unstable? Does the family function well? To know more about this, first, we have to define what family functioning is.

Family functioning is the interpersonal interaction among its familial members, which includes problem-solving, warmth, closeness, adaptability, roles, behavior control, and communication. Hence, family functioning is a construct that consists of multiple dimensions, such as the ability, process, or dynamics in a family which is related to the well-being and development of the family members. It also includes all the interaction that happens between each family member and how effective the ability of the family is to meet its basic needs and goals, to provide for its members’ material and emotional support, and also to maintain relationships with one another. It means that every member has to be able to meet the family’s basic needs and goals, therefore they have to be able to function well. 

So with parents that are mentally unstable or ill, the family is less likely to function well, as they would present more dysfunctional interaction among the members, just as stated in this research

So how far will the mentally-ill parents affect the family function? In this article, you can find what are the effects of living and caring for mentally-ill parents in your family on the family function and the relationship, whether it’s from the couple, parent-child, or siblings relationship.

The effect on the couple’s relationship

When one of the parents has a mental illness or is mentally unstable, it could affect the relationship between the two parents. It would happen because when one person in a couple is having a mental illness, the other would have to take care of the sick one. When they do, they have to take over a lot of tasks, even the most difficult ones. And that surely will take a lot and make them feel emotional discomfort

In addition to having to take care of themselves, they are also responsible for their mentally ill partner’s life, so it’s clear that it’s quite a heavy strain. This means that one or both parents will end up unable to do their job in the family as they should, which also means that they can’t function properly in the family. 

We also know that when we are taking care of someone with a mental illness, it could also be extremely harmful to the caregiver’s mental health. So when a partner is not just taking care of their life, but also that of the person with mental illness, it would also be harmful to their mental health

And as time goes on, the caregiver could feel desperate, and start to think “Whatever I do, he/she is just not getting better”, and would try to physically and emotionally distance themself from the sick partner. They can then tend to tear themselves apart from each other, as feelings of despair and frustration start to boil up. This straining apart then affects not only the couple but also the whole family, systematically and functionally.

The effect on the parent-child relationship

Just like the couple, when a parent gets mentally ill, it could also cause problems for the parent-child relationship, or the children themselves. Just like what we stated above, when we are taking care of someone with a mental illness, it could also be harmful to the caregiver’s health. That is precisely what happens to children who live with parents who have a mental illness — they could develop a mental problem themselves. 

We know from research that children of parents with Bipolar Disorder are the ones at a heightened risk for developing their mood and other psychiatric disorders. Those are the results of the daily interactions between the child and the parents who have a mental illness. As they give their attention to their sick parents, they can’t quite function well in the family itself. They won’t have time to take care of their welfare as taking care of their parents took a lot of their time.

Other than mental problems, children who live with parents who have mental illnesses could also develop physical and psychological problems. Parents with mental illnesses such as depression or Bipolar Disorder could provide less support and affection to the children, which can cause the children to also feel abandoned, then cause attachment problems and social problems, if not immediately then in the future. Where the parents should have become the number one emotional support to the children, the children have to do the opposite task to become the number one emotional support for the sick parents instead. 

The children are also at higher risk for child abuse from mentally-ill parents. Sometimes, we find parents that express their mental illness through physical abuse of their children, either as a means of control or dominance in the family as they can’t show it by anything else. As we all know, physical abuse, neglect, or even decreased parental affection are some of the characteristics of family dysfunction.

Children may also respond to their parents when they are experiencing mental distress in various forms, such as fear and confusion, and may even question their normality. Perhaps when they are still at an early age, they wouldn’t understand what is happening to their parents. But as they grow older, they may start to question their parents’ behaviors, like “What is happening to my parents? Are they sick? Do they need help?”. In the end, they would also start to fear that they might end up sick like their parents.

The effect on sibling relationships

Having a mentally-ill parent in the family could also affect relationships between siblings in the family. One of the effects is that the older siblings will have to take care of their younger siblings, in other words, they have to assume parental responsibility. The result would probably be negative, but caring would lead the older siblings to be more mature and responsible in the future, where performing such parental roles and responsibilities will build self-esteem in the children.

The siblings could also have unbalanced relationships. The life that they have would be a “roller coaster” one, where they would experience a lot of different situations, which could lead them to a lot of different moods and various outcomes.

But sometimes siblings also see each other as the main moral support when their parents are unwell. They would support each other when things get hard, such as when their parents are experiencing mental distress. This could be seen as one of the important roles that children should do when their parents are dealing with mental illness.

In conclusion

Living with mentally ill parents has a significant effect on family function. It disturbs the way that the family should function, from cohesion and communication, even to the relationship. The parents’ relationship will be disordered, and the children will experience the most effect from it. The family could end up dysfunctional at every level.

If you would like to know more about family functioning, the Family Science Labs produces learning materials and tools on the subject using the research of the Institute for Life Management Science. Visit the Family Science Labs today.

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Photo by Ksenia Makagonova on Unsplash

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