How to Have a Relationship With a Parent Who Struggles With Mental Illness
I know this dynamic all too well. Ever since I was a child, my father has had mental health issues. He didn't have the language for his experience as a Black man when I was young—and who can blame him? Back then, marginalized people were too busy focusing on survival to have conversations about mental health. As my father has aged, he's had more time to communicate effectively, and that's improved our parent-child relationship. Sometimes, I realize that we've had months of getting along smoothly. Other times, we need cooling-off periods. (Did I mention that our temperaments are very, very similar?)
When your parent has a mental illness or addiction, you often develop an inner voice that tells you to repair things before they go bad. You tell yourself that you can defuse the situation, and stay quiet to keep things the way they are: good on the surface. With time, I've learned that the best course of action with approaching my father is with love and prep from a therapist. Here, trauma-informed therapist Stacy Cesar, MHC-LP, shares advice for people living with traumatic family dynamics.
"Having a parent with mental illness is hard to navigate, especially if you’re around them often or living with them," Cesar says. In such a highly emotional environment, she adds, it's imperative to check in with your body and feelings—and then find resources to help you manage the challenge. "You are not alone in this, although it can feel that way," she says. "Get really clear on what support you have outside of your home." That could be therapy, a support group, or mind-body work such as yoga, meditation, deep breathing, and exercise.
Set (and enforce) boundaries
Boundaries, Cesar says, are healthy and among the most important shields for your own mental well-being. "Boundaries are guidelines you put in place to protect yourself as you navigate various adult relationships," she says. "They provide a guideline of how you expect and want to be treated." Consider this prompt as an example: "When you say _______, it makes me feel bad/sad/down/etc. In the future, can you please not call me this or say this to me? I would really appreciate it. This language does not make me feel good."
Often, people who can set boundaries with friends and co-workers struggle to do so with relatives. "It becomes harder to set with family, when in fact they are the main people to exercise this tool with," Cesar says. She acknowledges that setting boundaries will feel unfamiliar at first, but that the discomfort is part of the process.
When you set boundaries, she says, your family member may not be receptive—or they may become defensive while continuing the behavior. But you have to stay firm and enforce those boundaries. "Consistency is important," Cesar says. If you remain consistent in boundary-setting, two options are in front of them: 'I either follow these boundaries and have this relationship' or 'I do not follow these boundaries and lose this relationship.'
"Be compassionate to yourself," Cesar says. "You are navigating how you can show up for yourself and someone else at the same time. It takes a lot of patience, self-assessment, self-awareness, and mental work." Cesar says that being kind and patient with yourself is important, and that speaking to yourself in the mirror can be powerful. "Tell yourself, 'I am doing good and utilizing the resources available to me right now.'"
Know when to take a break
Even if you're using the above tools, a loved one's mental illness may cause you to struggle with your own mental well-being. "This looks like having outbursts at inappropriate times, feeling down/sad often during the week, not being able to perform at work, sleep disturbance, change in appetite, anxious, racing thoughts, and so on," Cesar says. "These are all indications that the problem is not getting better."
If you're not already in therapy, this is the time to take that step. "A qualifying clinician can help you process everything that you are feeling. Often, this will result in uncovering triggers," Cesar says. Additionally, she suggests pausing the relationship for a month (or more) until you can decrease or eliminate the symptoms you're experiencing. "Then, you can check in with yourself and decide whether you want to open yourself back up to the relationship," Cesar says. "Whatever your decision is, it is okay. Relationships take two parties; you cannot do the work for the other, no matter how much you try or love the person."
Hold space for your parent
Parents are people, too—and nobody's perfect. While you are not responsible for healing your parent's mental illness, there are ways you can support them. A few ideas:
Talk about it
Hold space for each other. Have conversations with your parents about their mental illness. Ask questions and communicate about it. Families often do not talk about mental illness openly, which can leave everyone walking on eggshells or just guessing about what to do.
After you have the talk about your parent mental health diagnosis, be intentional about doing something fun together: a walk, lunch, cooking, watching a movie, yoga, etc. Find out your parent’s love language and utilize it.
Support their healing
One way to show support and love is to make sure they are connected to therapy and, if necessary, a doctor to manage medication. Try to communicate about appointments openly to eliminate the negative emotions that may come up.
Find community connections
What community support do they have? That can look like a book club, support group, cooking group, running group, extended family, or community centers. Make sure they are connected. Just like anyone else, feeling like you're a part of something feels good.
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