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Mentally ill Parents - A major threat to children

mental problems
Children and adolescents of mentally ill parents in the youth group
©: Tatyana Gladskih - Fotolia

This is a much-underestimated threat because more often than not you can only see very little nor nothing at all from the outside. In our society, diseases of the soul are still not fully recognized and by far not taking seriously enough. Many patients are afraid to be misunderstood or even ridiculed. For this reason, they keep mainly to themselves. It takes them a lot of courage and often desperation as well to seek help from a psychologist do find a better way to deal with their illnesses. Often they even conceal their conditions from their children. However, as soon as the symptoms worsen, hiding them is nearly impossible. Most of the affected parents are so busy to manage themselves that there often is not enough time and energy left for the children. Because of their disease, they often not just lose their courage and confidence, but often they also lose their job, partner and the bigger part of their social environment, as well as many other things. In particular for young children, this situation is totally incomprehensible, scary and stressful. It does, however, take its toll on older children as well. There is almost always a lack of care and support for those children which would help them learning to deal with this extraordinary situation.

In those cases, children need help urgently

Out of 13 million children living in Germany, 3-4 million are estimated to have parents with a mental health disorder. This number is alarmingly high and the number of unreported cases is probably even higher. Those children need desperate help because their parents can’t do it any longer. Many parents quite possible realize that they are no longer able to perform their duties. However, they find themselves in such a controversial situation, that it becomes very difficult seeking help, leave alone receiving this much-needed help as well. There is not a great deal of programs on offer in the field of mental health. Finding reasonable assistance is almost impossible. Many parents with mental health issues do not have reliable relatives who could look after the children. This is where society has to step in and intervene and provide genuine, easy obtainable assistance.

An excellent example is the Sponsorship Network for Affected People in Berlin . This sponsorship brings children and mentors together in the case the children’s parents are ill and require help. The affected children are offered to build stable and reliable relationships with their sponsors. In some instances, children can also be taken into the sponsor’s family temporarily. Especially in those cases where parents are (in-)voluntarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital it is extremely hard for children to fall on their feet again. Without support for the children, this can have fatal results. A mentor who really cares about the child, there is the possibility to form a strong bond. Someone for the child to hold on to. In any case, those affected children need desperately help. Having to go through such a harsh time while growing up can leave serious consequences for the child’s entire later life.

Mentally ill children often follow mentally ill parents.

It is not uncommon that children of mentally ill parents get into a similar situation later in life. In particular, if the child was still very young at the onset of the parent’s mental decline. Those children are at a higher risk to develop a mental disorder later on in their lives. Children learn by imitation. If the adult’s role model is one of discouragement and depression, the chances for the child to imitate this behaviour are high. That can start with little things like poorly thought through behaviour regarding his diet. Spending too much money is such behaviour, right down to unsocial interactions with other people.

This is an enormous burden on the psyche, which can lead affected children to spiritual, mental and social deficits. Those deficits in turn result again in a lot of related problems in life. They even can progress into a mental disorder themselves. Children can easily get set on the idea that they are to blame or are responsible for the parents’ problem. Children have an uncanny ability to blame themselves, even for things which are entirely out of their control. This may lead to self-loathing, which in turn negatively affects the child’s psyche.

In addition, there are also those children who already experienced a suicide attempt of their parents. They might have found them bleeding or half dead laying somewhere on the floor. For the child, this results in constant fear that one day the parent might succeed. This fear leads quite quickly to depression. It is not uncommon that the child takes on the responsibility of the adult in that situation. Particularly for single parents this becomes a problematic situation. Children take on all the house chores, from cleaning to shopping and eventually paying all the bills. Unfortunately, too often this happens already at a very young age, leaving the child overwhelmed with responsibility. Generally most children are very loyal and keep these problems often to themselves. Not only are those children robbed of their childhood. They have hardly any free time anymore and the chance to develop properly is diminished.

What concerned parents can do

If you suffer from a mental illness, it would be wise to look around for preventative measures at times when your symptoms are not so overwhelming. For example, that’s the time to write a letter to your child, which serves him as an anchor to hold on to when times are getting tough again. Another idea would be, to discuss further strategies with a mental health professional on how to protect your child. But above all and particular in severe cases, find a psychologist for your children. He will help you with advice and help your children to deal with this situation better. Perhaps you have the possibility of a relative who could take on the function of a caregiver for the times when you can’t. Or you could find a mentor program nearby. Besides everything else and working on yourself, it is important to always work for the child’s wellbeing. Most parents just simply underestimate the effects these stressful situations have on children. The fact whether a child gets the needed help in time might be crucial for the positive or negative course of his life.

An appeal to the society

It can’t go on any longer that the children of mentally ill people are overlooked. Those almost forgotten children have hardly anyone to lobby for them. Therefore lobbying for children of mentally unwell parents must be created. However, it is not only the children. There are the needs of their partners, relatives and all the other affected people in and around the family. Their needs likewise, cannot be overlooked any longer. There is hardly any reasonable compiled informational material for affected people available. And sadly enough, nationwide there is not one central focus point for people with mental illnesses. It seems we only start to care about those people when it is too late. When they become severely ill. With more preventative measures, and in particular for children, but also for everyone else involved many of those cases could be prevented before they are getting out of control.

What opportunities do educators for special needs children have?

In any case, it’s the educator’s job to always be attentive and look out for children whether they develop problematic behaviours. However, in many cases it is really hard to detect that there is a problem in the family because the children are masters in disguising their difficulties. Out of misguided loyalty, they often refuse to talk to anybody about their parent’s problems. This makes it even harder to detect any maladies in the family. Active listening and carefully formulated questions are sometimes the only tools available to the educator. It can happen, however, that the children come for help or that a friend asks for help for the affected child.

Children and adolescents of mentally ill parents in the youth group

The tip: Get to know their parents and you will get to know and understand their children as well.

As a rule of the thumb, we will probably never know whether the mental illness of the parent has already impacted on the child. Psychological problems? What does that really mean?

Everybody has his quirks. One stronger, one lesser but they all have their psychological roots. Here (in Germany), it still is frowned about to have psychological problems or to seek psychological help. In America, on the other hand, this is almost de rigueur and considered normal.

The behaviour of children and young people and even our behaviour was characterized by our parents. From this point of view, one or the other characteristic can be recognised and understood. However, for many this is new because they never sat down and addressed this fact.

The more clearly the psychological affliction of the parent presents, the stronger the child will be affected. However, you cannot conclude, that whenever a child’s behaviour becomes apparent, that there is a mental health issue within the family.

If it were possible to get the parents, children and young people in our youth groups to know a lot better, we would also understand them better. You could initiate this “getting-to-know” process through joint excursions, parent afternoons, visiting days on summer camps, around the campfire or with scheduled gaming nights.

Note: The problem with that is unfortunately, that those parents to you want to address with those initiatives are most likely those who would not come. – I think that is a point you should keep in mind. Sometimes out of the parent’s mental health problems and sometimes because the child is ashamed of its parents and does not want others to see them.

Aggressive or depressive behaviour, over-anxiousness, constant worrying or reprimanding parents, those are all behaviours children eventually will take on and make them their own.

The way we get to know the parents, the more we can learn to understand their child. Eventually, you will build up a relationship with the child, the young person respectively, where you can support those children and give them specific help according to their situations.

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