When An Adult Child is Diagnosed With Mental Illness: A Parent’s Role

Mental illnesses often start in early adulthood. When adult children are diagnosed with mental disorders, loving parents often provide support (emotional and financial) while adult children rehabilitate. However, many parents are uncertain how to help. Here are 10 tips to start:

1.     Be a member of the mental health team.

Take her to a few appointments, meet the treatment team, express your concerns, and invite the clinical team to call you if they ever have reason to involve family.

2.     Point out problem behaviors happening at home to clinical professionals.

In clinical appointments, your loved one will describe unwanted thoughts and feelings, but probably will not talk about the behaviors that are worrying you. All of us misestimate our own problem behaviors. Often, the team won’t know about punching walls or lashing out at loved ones or lying in bed all day unless a family member alerts them.

3.     Ask questions about disease and prognosis.

Information can help alleviate your worries. Ask about the disease, its treatments, and the long-term prognosis. Knowledge is empowering.

4.     Decide how you can help, and under which conditions.

Will the new diagnosis lead to increased emotional and financial support from you? If so, consider in advance what kind of help you can reasonably give and when it might be healthy to give it, or stop giving it. For example, if your child is moving home for a while, is that open ended, or will you consider a time limit if you see that she regresses back to defiant teenager behavior? Or, can you afford to help with the rent indefinitely? Whatever the parameters, it’s important to talk about them up front.

5.     Communicate in specific details.

When you talk about helping, get very specific. “We can pay the rent on your apartment for 3 months. After that, if you aren’t able to get back on your feet, you’ll need to move home. We cannot afford to pay for 2 households long-term.”

6.     Make rules and expectations clear.

Do you expect your adult child to help clean up if he moves home? Will he be in charge of taking out the garbage and mowing the lawn? Make these expectations plain so he can meet them.

7.     Keep her accountable.

If you asked her to get a part time job and she isn’t doing it, be prepared to take action to make it a firm requirement. Don’t allow the mental health problem to have her give up on life. If she’s capable of getting out and doing more, hold her to it.

8.     Get your own anxiety under control.

When your child is hurting, especially when he has a problem that is hard for you to comprehend, you might get worried and overwhelmed. Take care of yourself and deal with your own anxiety. A nervous parent won’t be as helpful as a calm one.

9.     Accept that you are not in control of others, but you are in control of your choices.

When symptoms affect your son or daughter’s behavior and functioning, it can be tempting to try to take over and control your child. Parents might try to manage the job search, or buy a gym membership and try to require regular workouts. But it’s nearly impossible to control the behavior of others. Parents can set the house rules (Clean up after yourself!) but we can’t manage things that don’t affect us, like adult children’s self-care habits.

10. You cannot prescribe the medication, and you cannot become the therapist. But you can support healthy growth and development.

Encourage your adult child to learn about his illness, and the path to recovery. Ask him to be part of a growth program, so he can improve his skills and get himself healthy again. Refuse to enable stagnation. These are the most helpful things you can do.

Posted on February 13, 2017 .