When an Adult Child is Mentally Ill : Dos and Don'ts of Responding

Dr. Robert Ritzema

August 29, 2018

Your adult child has been diagnosed with a mental illness. What does that mean? What affect does it have on him or her? How can you help? And how can you best deal with the feelings it evokes in you? Young adults suffering from a mental illness can benefit from family support, but it is important for family members to understand the nature of the problem and to be aware that some responses can be harmful rather than helpful. 

An Illness

A mental illness is a medical condition that affects a person's thoughts, emotions, or behaviors. Some disorders are mild and transient; others are severe and chronic. Some disorders tend to be long-lasting, significantly impair functioning, and typically aren't diagnosed until adolescence or adulthood. These include schizophrenia, bipolar affective disorder, and major depressive disorder. Many additional conditions can, in some cases, be debilitating and long-lasting. 

Here are some dos and don'ts in responding to an adult child diagnosed with a mental illness. 

Acknowledge the reality

Be aware that mental illnesses are real medical conditions that truly afflict the person. Mentally ill people aren't just feeling sorry for themselves, or lacking faith, or being lazy. Some with a mental illness (just like those without a mental illness) may have any or all of these characteristics, but none of these define mental illness. And the person can't overcome the condition just by trying harder. Comments like "Why don't you just think about happy things" or "You can make yourself better if you put your mind to it" aren't helpful and often make the person feel more misunderstood and isolated. In some cases, such advice leads to guilt or self-blame, worsening the person's already too-negative thoughts about themselves.

Understand the limitations

Family members trying to be of assistance can err not only by telling the person to control symptoms and behavior, they can also err in the opposite direction, communicating that the person is totally helpless in the face of the illness. Mentally ill individuals are unlikely to be able to overcome the illness, but they can make some effort to cope with its effects. Effort alone isn't enough, but effort and coping is still important. To treat the family member as nothing more than a helpless victim is likely to foster apathy or dependency.

Seek out resources 

Family members can be of help even before a mental illness has been diagnosed. If the person is showing signs of emotional distress but resists making an appointment with someone qualified to assess and treat the condition, gently encourage him or her to take that step. Try to convey that having emotional struggles or needing outside help isn't evidence of weakness. If you've had emotional difficulties of your own and have sought help, tell your story, highlighting the benefits that came from professional consultation. And if you struggle emotionally but have never seen anyone, you might consider making an appointment for yourself, since advice you don't follow yourself is likely to be ignored by others.    

Gently point out the problem

Unfortunately, many individuals who have the symptoms of a mental illness deny that there is anything wrong with them. That can be true even after they have seen a professional and been given a diagnosis. Family members can sometimes recognize the signs of emotional difficulty more clearly than the affected person can. In some cases it is helpful to gently point out what you've noticed. There is little to be gained and often much to lose by pressing the issue, though. 

Work together

Sometimes individuals with mental illness will reduce or even eliminate contact with their family. Do everything you can to keep lines of communication open. If your son or daughter wants to talk to you about his or her struggles, listen patiently and non-judgmentally. Don't press for more information than he or she is comfortable providing. 

It's not uncommon for those who are troubled to try to understand what has caused their difficulties, and sometimes that entails blaming others, including family members. If you're being blamed, try not to react defensively. Acknowledge mistakes you have made; otherwise listen attentively and express empathy, regardless of what you think of the person's explanation for their suffering. 

Should you find yourself being pushed away, accept restricted interaction; minimal contact is better than none at all. Sometimes a person with mental illness will respond positively if family members offer to serve as a support team, providing extra assistance when conditions worsen. If such an offer is accepted, ask your child what kind of help they would like to have at those times, negotiating a plan with which everyone is comfortable. 

Pray hard

A final point (and probably the most important one): remember that God is in control. Chronic mental health conditions are disheartening, and prospects for recovery may seem bleak. Remember that God is the great healer. Do rely on mental health professionals, but remember that your troubled son or daughter is deeply loved by God, and God has the power to make all things new. Put your dear child in his hands. And remember to think carefully about how you respond to him or her. Being wise in what you say and do can be tremendously helpful to one much in need of help.

About the author — Dr. Robert Ritzema

Bob Ritzema is a clinical psychologist, having received his doctorate from Kent State University. He has worked for over 25 years as a psychotherapist and more than 10 years as a college professor. He retired from Methodist University in 2012 to return to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan in order to assist his parents. He currently works part-time at Psychology Associates of Grand Rapids and worships at Monroe Community Church. He has two sons and three grandchildren.

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