Children as Caregivers

Taking care of sufferers with mental health problems can be a challenging task, especially if you are a child taking care of a parent or guardian. Here are some answers to possible questions you may have:

  1. What are the ways in which a parents mental illness can impact me?

Activities at school: An unstable home environment can affect your ability to concentrate in class. You may also not get enough quiet time at home to be able to finish your homework or study for tests. In this situation, it is important to discuss the problems you are facing with a teacher, principal or counsellor you can trust. You may even ask your other parent or a guardian to contact the school on your behalf.

Talking not only helps you feel better about what is happening, but your teacher or principal may be able to help you find ways of working around the problems you’re facing; like using the school library to study after school.

Relationships with friends: A parent who is suffering from mental illness may require much of your time. This may cut down the time you can spend with friends. It can also be difficult having friends over to your house if you are not sure what the home environment may be like on any particular day.

As a consequence, your friendships may suffer. If you trust your friends, it may be worthwhile to openly explain to them the reason for your absence. Opening up to your friends may make it easier to maintain the friendship and to turn to them for support when you need it.

Relationship with parents: When suffering from mental illness, your parent may not always be in control of their feelings and their reactions to daily events. They may be angry, sad, worried or extremely happy in disproportionate ways. They may direct these feelings towards you or express them around you, and this may be frightening and upsetting. If they are expressing anger at you, you may also start feeling angry.

It is okay to have these feelings. They are a natural response to things that are happening around you.

It is important to remember that the way your parent is acting is because of how their illness is making them feel at that moment. It is not permanent. It may help to try and remember what your parent is like when they are well, and to believe they can get back to that point again. It is natural to be angry at our parents, but it is also important to not blame them for their illness.

For sufferers it can be hard to maintain good relationships with their family or friends. In these situations, a little extra effort from the people around them can help. Some ways to stay connected with your parent might be to talk to them about your daily activities, to tell them regularly that you care about them and to do little things to brighten their day. This can be in the form of making them a card, or simply giving them a hug or spending some time with them.

Change in responsibilities: You may have to help more around the house and take over some of the responsibilities which conventionally rest on your parent’s shoulders. This might mean extra chores or making sure your parent is eating, drinking and taking care of themselves properly. It can even mean shouldering financial responsibility, since you may have to earn money in order to contribute to the household. In addition, you may have to be more careful about how you spend money.

Combined with school work and other pressures, these responsibilities may become overwhelming. If this happens, it is important to take other family members or relatives on board and tell them that you are having difficulty managing the situation. Asking for help at the right time is essential for your and your parent’s wellbeing in the long run.

  1. When and how should I talk to my parent about their illness?

Many people find it difficult to talk about their mental illness. Your parent may not be aware that they are ill or may become angry if the topic of mental illness comes up. However, being well informed about your parent’s illness can help you to care better for them.

Looking up information about the illness from reliable sources is one way of learning more. It is also important to talk to your parent’s health care provider and ask them to explain what is happening and how you can help your parent and yourself.

If you feel like you can talk to your parent about their illness, it is important to be honest and open about what specifically hurts or frightens you and to talk without becoming angry or assigning blame to your parent. Choose a time when your parent is not actively ill or suffering. It may help for your other parent to be present during the discussion as well.

  1. Can I catch mental illness from my parent?

Mental illness has different causes as we explained in the Learn section. Mental illness is not an infectious disease and there is no direct link with a parent passing it on to a child or vice versa.  While stress and emotional instability in the home environment may increase the susceptibility, there is plenty that can be done to help a child of an ill parent stay healthy and stable.

It is very important that you look after yourself. This may even involve looking for professional help and support. Taking preventive measures by practicing emotional hygiene and looking after your emotional health can be of great help in developing positive coping mechanisms to mitigate stress and regulate emotions.

  1. What are the things I should remember and do along the way?
  • While you can help your loved ones in small ways to make them feel better, recovering from mental illness is a long process that can take time, test patience and requires a lot of effort on the part of not just the sufferer but the entire family.
  • It can sometimes be easy to blame ourselves for our parent’s changes in moods, but it is important to remember that all of us make mistakes, and these mistakes did not cause our parent’s illness.
  • It can be difficult to discuss your parent’s illness with family, friends or teachers. You may not know how to approach the subject, or you may not feel like there are people around who you can trust. You may even feel embarrassed. It may require some bravery on your part to openly discuss your parent’s illness, but communication is essential to ensuring that you have the support you need.
  • Pay attention to your emotional and physical needs, and try to make sure that they are being met. Sometimes when our parents are suffering, we need to take more responsibility for our personal wellbeing. This can involve clearly talking to your parents or other adults about what your needs are. You can only fully be there for your parent when you are feeling physically and emotionally healthy and stable.
  • Find time for fun activities. Being absent from home for a while can cause anxiety, anger or sadness for our parents while they are ill, so spending time with friends or taking part in activities at school can lead to feelings of guilt. However, these activities are an important part of our emotional growth and therefore necessary.
  • It is important that you can talk to your parent’s mental health service provider honestly and, if needed, privately.