Learn how to cope with a grown child with mental illness, as discussed by therapists, health professionals, and experts.
Here are strategies parents can employ to help their children:
Table of Contents
- Have reasonable expectations for yourself and your child
- Consider your child’s actual age and developmental age when creating expectations
- Control what you can and let go of what you can’t
- Avoid being overly hostile or intrusive
- Seek support in the forms of individual, family, or group therapy
- Know your limitations as a parent
- Acceptance and confidence are extremely useful in providing support
- Stop the power struggle
- Listen actively
- Don’t invalidate them
- Extend the greatest patience you can
- Aside from therapy, parents can also utilize the following coping skills
- Do not try to control your kid’s behavior
- You can control your own behavior via your leverage
- Orient and uphold boundaries
- Get your own support
- Parents can be helpful through positive communication and empathy
- Use a professional to help bridge the communication and treatment gaps
- Do not control and critic your kids
- Ensure them that you are with them
- Ask your adult child what they need to feel safe
- Set boundaries
- Find a support group
- Respond in a helpful way while still respecting your child’s decisions
Licensed Marriage and Family therapist, Birmingham Maple Clinic
Have reasonable expectations for yourself and your child
Have reasonable expectations for yourself and your child. Avoid the word “should” as it applies unnecessary expectations.
Consider your child’s actual age and developmental age when creating expectations
Consider both your child’s actual age and developmental age when creating expectations. Often parents of mentally ill adult say, “I can’t force them to do anything they are an adult.”
Think about ways to treat them in line with the age they behave in addition to how old they actually are.
Control what you can and let go of what you can’t
Often parents feel guilty that they can’t apply any limits or boundaries because they are fearful of their vulnerable adult child becoming suicidal. This can create a scenario of:
Related: How to Break Codependency Habits
Avoid being overly hostile or intrusive
This can actually worsen your child’s symptoms. Called expressed emotion, it’s a slippery slope as some mentally ill children can evoke a parents’ need to be firmer or medaling but this can trigger worse effects, especially with severe mental illness like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
Seek support in the forms of individual, family, or group therapy
The experiences of others can help reduce shame and improve connection, which has stress-relieving properties for the giver and the receiver.
Know your limitations as a parent
Know your limitations and do not try to be your child’s friend, family, and therapist. Know that you must intervene by contacting 911 or taking your child to ER if there is a risk of suicide or self-harm.
Dr. David Grodberg, MD, MS
Former Medical Director of Yale Child Study Center Outpatient Clinic | Chief Medical Officer, Brightline Health
Acceptance and confidence are extremely useful in providing support
We know from research that one of the most effective ways for parents to support their children who are experiencing anxiety is to communicate two things:
- That they accept and understand that their child is worried and anxious, that they know this is all very hard; and
- That they have confidence that their child has the ability to get through this and to cope.
These two ingredients—acceptance and confidence—can be extremely useful in providing support to children who are anxious.
Children can use certain tools to help themselves cope with anxiety, for example, multiple relaxation techniques. These can include:
- muscle relaxation
- diaphragmatic breathing
We can also help reframe on a cognitive level how they think about anxiety, with the goal of replacing the irrational thoughts they may be experiencing with different thoughts.
These two techniques are things we like to consider a part of a ‘toolbox.’ They won’t necessarily make anxiety go away on their own, but they are skills that, when applied with other approaches, can help them through tough moments.
It is important to note to both parents and children that anxiety, depression, and other powerful feelings are very common and that families should not feel alone.
The good news is that there are interventions, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, that have been scientifically proven to really help.
We know that a lot of adult mental health problems start by the age of 14, and a significant number start even earlier, so we are aware that if certain behavioral health challenges are not addressed early on they can get more complicated and affect other domains of development.
There is no easy way for parents to get behavioral healthcare for their children.
This is a problem because about 20% of children in the United States have a diagnosable mental health condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control. At Brightline, we strive to eliminate the many barriers to care to make it easy for parents to access care for their kids wherever and whenever they need it.
Dr. Ava Williams
Primary Care Doctor, Doctor Spring
Probably one of the most important tips I can give is to avoid arguments with them.
Stop the power struggle
Most often, they will only get more frustrated as you try imposing your point.
Understand what they are trying to say and let them know your effort. You can say back how you understood what they’re saying and let them know you are trying. In case you read them wrong, calmly clarify things with your child.
People with mental illness rarely get the empathy that they are looking for. If you show them you are sincerely trying to understand how they think and feel, you can build a strong foundation of trust.
Don’t invalidate them
Instead, involve them with the decision-making, take into consideration what they want and if it’s not permissible set the boundaries and give them reasons instead of making them follow mindlessly.
Again, avoid making them feel like you are against them and let them know you will always be on the same team.
- Don’t force them to listen to your argument
- Don’t force them to open up to you
- Don’t force them to follow your orders
Extend the greatest patience you can
Know that sometimes it will take time. You may not be the best person to help them at the moment, so ask who or what will help them best in that situation. Even if they can’t figure it out immediately, let them know you are there when you are needed.
Grown children with mental illness are more sensitive as they have a deeper understanding of their surroundings, which usually come with age. Even if it’s just by a tiny margin, they are more mature, and they know when they are being attacked emotionally or verbally.
It’s important to be more careful about how you speak with them and avoid making them feel threatened or belittled.
For example, if you’re trying to prepare them for adulthood, take small steps. You can’t expect them to have the same pace and mentality as a regular person.
Start at a young age by teaching them how to do chores. Help them adjust to a new circle of people and slowly build their social and personal confidence. Condition them to think they can survive the outside world on their own.
Alex Greenwald (MHC-LP)
Licensed Therapist, Empower Your Mind Therapy
It’s not easy being a teenager. From peer and media influences to parental and societal expectations, teens today experience pressures and stressors that previous generations have never had to deal with. While everyone goes through this challenging period of life, we all experience it differently.
More than ever, teens need to know there are people in their lives who understand what they are going through.
At least 1 in 5 teens (20%) deal with mental health issues. Therapy not only helps teens talk about their thoughts and feelings but encourages healthy coping mechanisms and skills, and communication skills.
Parents sometimes get a reputation for being unaware of their teens’ struggles, but plenty of parents are involved in teens’ lives but still struggle to understand what’s going on and how to help.
Aside from therapy, parents can also utilize the following coping skills
Aside from therapy (described below), here are coping skills parents can use if their teen is struggling with mental health:
Provide some constructive distraction
If your teen is focused on a situation or problem too intently, which is causing distress, try moving the focus away to something constructive like a walk, cooking dinner, or other activity.
Sit in a calm, quiet space, drink a warm beverage, or practice breathing techniques.
Help change their mindset or perspective
Help to change their mindset or perspective, especially when you don’t have much control over the situation.
Distress tolerance skills
Distress tolerance skills, which are utilized when someone is experiencing intense pain (physical and emotional) that won’t go away.
In therapy, specifically with Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), teens can learn how to communicate their needs and wants in an effective manner, as well as create healthy boundaries in the parent-teen dynamic.
DBT effectively helps regulate and amend challenging, unproductive, or even self-destructive thought patterns. The emotions and behavior that can negatively impact a teen’s life are thoroughly examined, explored, and addressed in a compassionate and empowering way.
DBT group offers teens a chance to learn and practice DBT skills they can use to be aware and remain in the present moment, understand that distress is not a permanent state, identify and navigate their own emotions more effectively, and how to develop healthy, supportive relationships.
Another wonderful and successful aspect about group is the opportunity to talk to other teens going through similar stressors.
Laura Goldstein, LCMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist | Founder, Montgomery County Counseling Center, LLC
Do not try to control your kid’s behavior
A lot of times, I see family members trying to make their children do a particular thing in order to help. And yet, it doesn’t help.
If they are only doing something to satisfy your expectations, they will not internalize the pride in their successes nor the learnings of their disappointments. All wins or losses will be attributed or blamed on parents, which prevents growth.
You can control your own behavior via your leverage
Although you cannot control your child’s behavior, you can control what YOU do based on the choices they make.
Your money, your cars, your home, your time, and your attention are all parts of your leverage. You can choose to give more or less of these based on the health of your child’s choices or the severity of their needs.
Orient and uphold boundaries
Be clear with your child about how you will use that leverage. Orient to you will and won’t do before going into a new or difficult situation.
Make sure they understand your limits before an emotionally charged situation. And then, when the emotionally charged situation occurs, stick to what you said! Don’t become stricter out of anger or more loose out of fear. Uphold exactly what you said you would do.
Get your own support
So often, parents of grown children think that their kids’ are the only ones who need therapy. This is a myth.
Mental illness affects the whole family, and all members need either their own support. Either individual therapy or parent coaching is essential for the parents of adult children with mental illness.
Not just to help you cope with the stress but also to give you tools to be more effective with your child. Very rarely does an adult child’s mental illness exist in a vacuum, and family changes will inevitably support an individual’s changes as well.
Stephanie Moir, MA, CRC, LMHC
Director & Bilingual Licensed Mental Health Counselor | Serene Mind Counseling + Evaluations
Parents can be helpful through positive communication and empathy
It can be frustrating for any parent of a grown child to know their child is struggling mentally. As parents, the last thing we want is our children to suffer. To be able to overcome some of the mental health challenges your child experiences, you can be helpful through positive communication and empathy.
Minimize any negative self-talk your grown child might be experiencing
First, you want to try and minimize any negative self-talk your grown child might be experiencing. Although you are not able to hear exactly what they are thinking, you can hear it when they speak about themself.
Use positive language to describe them and their behavior
Try and use positive language to describe them and their behavior when you are having a conversation. If you add negative language to their self-talk, you will further bring down their self-esteem.
If they have made a mistake, allow room for growth and ownership.
Do not label your adult child
In addition, labeling your adult child can impact their mental health negatively. When we label our children, we forget that this can lead to lower self-esteem and negative stereotypes. For example, If you are constantly telling your child that they are lazy, this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and this cycle will keep growing.
This can lead them to have excess feelings of loneliness, sadness, isolation, anger, and worry.
Instead of labeling your adult child, try to relate, empathize and understand. The best way to help someone is to communicate with them and place yourself in their shoes. We want to create a safe space for our adult children to feel they can connect with us.
William Schroeder, LPC, NCC
Co-Founder, Just Mind Counseling
Use a professional to help bridge the communication and treatment gaps
If you have a grown child with mental illness, it can be really helpful to have a mental health professional serve as a conduit between the patient and parents to bridge gaps in their care and coordinate care routines.
I’ve done a lot of work with ASD (Autism), where we frequently work with a team of professionals to support adult children to build a roadmap to success. Care coordination is an essential part of success between psychiatrists, therapists, and any occupational help or even wrap-around programs like the College Living Experience.
The goal is to try and build independent systems from the parents that help to enable lifelong independence. Examples can include things like long term RO-DBT groups (Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy) or short term social skills groups.
The support used will vary by the illness being faced. As an example, Schizophrenia will need different supports than Autism, but some areas may overlap, like the need for a community, medical support, and a mechanism that helps give general support and guidance as needed.
The main thing I would stress is just to learn from setbacks if they arise and not get upset by them, even though it is common to. If we look to learn from them, then we can improve our planning, and there are plenty of professionals who can help with this.
Just make sure to find one that you both like and trust.
Here are a few suggestions to make your existing tough situation a little more manageable.
Do not control and critic your kids
Do not judge your kids. How do you make this happen? Carefully listen to what your adult child wants to tell you. Don’t interrupt them, don’t try to modify them or prove them.
Just listen and analyze what they are saying and what you hear from them.
Ensure them that you are with them
Ensure them (and yourself) you are both on the same page. But don’t just tell them, show them.
Show them by working together; listen without an agenda; partner in decision-making, set boundaries when necessary.
Ask your adult child what they need to feel safe
They may not know. They may not be able or want to calm themselves down to express what they need. It may be about helping them learn to calm their anger.
There is no need to tolerate physical and verbal abuse (nor should your adult child). You may have to say “I love you. I’m here if you want help, but I will not allow you to criticize me, yell at me, swear at me, threaten me, etc..”
Find a support group
Find a support group for parents of someone with a mental illness and get help from their experiences and discussions.
Joy Cheriel Brown
Respond in a helpful way while still respecting your child’s decisions
I am actually a grown child with mental illness myself. I was diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder, bipolar type at age 24. I am currently 40.
My parents basically leave me alone to live my life, but they are always there and supportive if I need them. I asked my parents this question, and this is what they said:
My dad: “We try to keep things calm, do what we can to help, we just try to be good parents.”
My mom: “Try to keep convictions calm and peaceful. Tried to have an outlet for you to have something to do for itself that you liked to do. Tried to be as understanding as possible. Not to put too much pressure on you.”
Based on my mom’s response, I believe that’s why they have been so supportive with my filmmaking pursuits, maybe even more so than if I didn’t have a mental illness.
If I didn’t have a mental illness, I think there would have been a lot of discussions about me going out to find a real job, especially when there were several years where nothing seemed to be happening in my film career, but they’re really great about supporting my goals and not giving me any added pressure or stress.
I have had so many different jobs in the past while I grew my production company, but towards the end, I worked temporary jobs more, which didn’t provide as much compensation or benefits, and my parents stepped in and helped where they could, which really took the stress off and helped me to get some major projects done for my production company.
I started my production company without any venture capital financing or any startup funds whatsoever; I made my last two shorts with grant money, and one of my producers helped with the money it cost to do the stage play I produced in 2019.
It really helped that my parents were supportive and weren’t pressuring me to find additional work where I would make more money but be more stressed out. In the past, when I had more lucrative day jobs, while I was also growing my production company, the stress of it all led to psychotic episodes on more than one occasion.
My parents were there for that so they knew how to respond in a way that was helpful but still respected me as an adult who makes my own decisions and who is extremely autonomous.
And to add to what my dad said, they will often run small errands for me: picking up a prescription, bringing me a case of water. My dad got my bathrooms remodeled in my house and got me new doors put in.
My dad will also salt and shovel my sidewalks during the winter and clean off my car after a snow, and cut my grass during the summertime.
I have a lot of responsibilities as the founder of my production company, and they feel better knowing that they’re helping take some of the stress off of me.
Extreme and severe stress are what lead (present tense) to the Schizoaffective Disorder, bipolar type flaring up, which will ultimately result in psychosis if I let myself get too stressed out.