When an Adult Child is Mentally Ill: Handling Feelings

Dr. Robert Ritzema

August 26, 2018

Responding to an adult child who has a mental illness includes not only knowing how to interact with a mentally ill son or daughter, but also knowing how to handle one's own reactions. Parents of young adults suffering from a mental illness are likely to have a variety of strong feelings, and a number of strategies to facilitate coping with those emotional reactions. Below are several pointers for dealing with the effects of a child's mental, emotional, or substance-use problems on the parents and other family members.

Anxiety and Fear

Parents often are quite anxious about the welfare of their mentally ill son or daughter. Usually the anxiety is reality-based--worst-case outcomes can include impaired relationships, joblessness, homelessness, neglect of health or hygiene, and suicide attempts. Even though some anxiety is to be expected, it's detrimental to you and your child if anxiety comes to control your life. It's helpful to educate yourself about whatever condition your child has so that you know which of your fears are rational and which are overblown. With education, you're likely to learn that the most common long-term outcome for even serious mental conditions isn't death or total incapacity but some degree of adjustment, though perhaps at a lower level of functioning that would have otherwise been the case.

One idea that can make parents' anxiety worse is the belief that they have to somehow fix or rescue their child. It is definitely not all on you: most mentally ill adults have at least some resources they can use for their own care, and there are other people in your child's life, especially mental health professionals, who are trying to help. Remember, too, that your child is loved by God. Daily entrust your child to God's care.

Loss and Grief

Another reaction that can trouble parents of mentally ill adult children is a sense of loss. I once worked with Jerry, a young man who had functioned quite well until midway through college, then developed a psychotic condition. Five years on, he was slightly better, but still was not able to live independently. "He had such potential," his parents said over and over. "He was a mental giant. He's come down so far." They were losing hope that he would ever return to something resembling his former level of functioning, and were grieving the loss.

If you, like Jerry's parents, are struggling to deal with the discrepancy between your hopes for your child and the reality of their current life, allow yourself to grieve. Talk about your feelings--to others who have had similar losses, to a pastor or counselor, and to God. Only by letting ourselves mourn are we likely to eventually find comfort.

Shame and Guilt

Those with a mentally ill child may also experience guilt or shame. These are two distinct states: guilt is believing that you've done something wrong, while shame is a more general sense of being wrong--being less than or worse than others. Parents sometimes feel guilt over ways they interacted with their child during the years, deciding they should have parented differently--"I should have been around more," "I should have been more understanding," "I should have taught more responsibility." It may well be that some self-critiques are legitimate. After all, we all are amateurs when it comes to parenting, and we all make mistakes. But poor parenting doesn't create mental illness. Don't get stuck in guilt. If you anticipate that it would be beneficial, apologize to your adult child. Ask for God's forgiveness, and work to forgive yourself. Be aware, too, that mental illnesses are complex phenomena that typically have multiple causes; even substandard parenting is no more than one of many contributing factors.

As for the feeling of shame, it is exacerbated by social comparison. Your child is mentally ill, while your friend's child is doing great, seemingly without a care in the world. It's easy to think that there is something flawed about you and your family. It's also easy to feel judged--to think that other parents are looking down on you or blaming you. It's helpful to remember what one woman with a chronically depressed daughter tells herself regularly: "They wouldn't be judging me if they had to walk a mile in my shoes." In other words, remember that anyone who judges you doesn't understand what you're going through. Hidden shame is like an infected wound, spreading poison through your psyche. Lance the wound by talking about your feelings with someone who is trustworthy. A family support group can often be a safe environment for such discussions. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) provides such groups in many places.


Shame can infect one's sense of identity, making you think that who you are is somehow flawed or disgraceful. Especially if you spend a good deal of time thinking about or trying to help a son or daughter who is mentally ill, it's easy to start thinking that you are nothing more than the parent of a troubled child. Remember that you are much more than this. Remember especially your identity as a child of God, cherished and cared for by him. And do things that remind you of other aspects of your identity: spend time with friends or other family members, take time to pursue a hobby, volunteer, get involved in your church.

Dealing with a mentally ill adult child can be tremendously draining, especially since such illnesses are typically chronic, complex, and unstable. Take care of yourself and hold on to who you are, for only by doing so will you have the strength you'll need for the long haul.

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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