7 Tasks for a Parent Whose Child Is Diagnosed with a Mental Illness


When I teach workshops or lead discussions on coming off psychiatric drugs and alternatives, there are invariably parents present who are at loose ends.  They want to know what to do for their children, how best to help them, and how it can be possible for their child to live without medication given all they have been through.  Oftentimes there have been violence, suicide threats/attempts, substance abuse/addiction, and a long history of diagnoses and psychiatric drugs that haven’t worked but to sedate their child.  Most of the time, the child (who may be an adult) is on numerous psychiatric drugs and lacks motivation and energy.

Here are seven ideas I share with them that may also help you:

  1. Forget about the diagnostic label.  Yes, your child is suffering.  Yes, your offspring still has something to bring to the world that hasn’t been understood or effectively supported.  Space hasn’t been made for it…  yet.
  2. Find your child’s gifts and support them.  Do support your child as much as possible. If your daughter/son has great gifts that society doesn’t acknowledge so much, let them know!  As their parent, you can see them more clearly sometimes (less clearly at other times).  Find out more about their gifts from those who admire them and see the best in them.
  3. Don’t take responsibility for your child’s label. Instead, take responsibility for yourself.  Don’t call yourself a bad parent.  Do call yourself a traumatized person.  Do write and speak of your own trauma, in whatever ways feel best, with your community.  Do share your own life story with your children (when/if they are in a place to hear it) and the world.  Do create.  Do have fun.  Don’t stop focusing on your own life. Your child is picking up where you left off, so the more secrets you unearth about your own trauma, the less burden your daughter/son has to hold.
  4. Tell your story and share it with the world, or find another way to express it artistically. In your story, focus on yourself.  Don’t focus on your child or share things about them without their permission.  Keep gossip about your child in check.  It’s very socially acceptable for parents to talk solely about their children and to do so without respecting confidentiality.  Challenge yourself to keep the focus of your conversations on your own feelings and experiences.
  5. Don’t use your child’s challenges to distract you from your own.  This is easy for parents to do.  Your children are used to being an energetic dumping ground for your anxieties and fears.  They receive them no matter how hard you try to protect them or keep secrets.  They are likely to benefit if you address your own challenges.
  6. Keep coming back to yourself.  Are you lonely?  Do you need more connection with friends?  Do you have enough creative outlets?  Are you sharing your creativity with the world?  Do you have a form of meditation that you practice daily?  Are you taking out your relationship challenges on your children? Take care of your own body and health.  Do and model all the things you want your children to do to take care of themselves.
  7. Be open to learning something new from your child. Be willing to admit you don’t know everything and that your child may be your greatest teacher.

The idea behind all of these suggestions is to be loving, kind, and compassionate with yourself.  Sure, you weren’t a perfect parent. Maybe you had so much stress and trauma of your own that you abused your children emotionally or physically.  Most parents have been abusive in some way.  And most have an incredible amount of shame about this.  Most parents were also abused themselves.

If this is the case, acknowledge that you are a hurt child underneath, too.  Seek out support groups, mediation, friends, artistic expression, and whatever else helps you own your own life experiences and respect and forgive yourself. Share your traumas with a professional if needed/desired.  Finally, ask yourself what you need to do to reconcile the ways you have unwittingly hurt your son/daughter.  Apologize to your child, maybe?  Apologize to yourself, surely.

Disclaimer: I am not a parent, so I offer this with due humility that I do not know what it is like. These are things I would have liked someone to say to my own parents when I was in turmoil, and things I’d like to say to other parents as well.



Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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  1. Thanks for bringing focus to the family in this way, Chaya. I think it’s the most tricky and sensitive exploration of these issues, understandably, and also vitally relevant. One needn’t be a parent to understand a child’s needs given how we were all children at one point, without exception. How to balance needs of self without somehow depriving or expecting sacrifice from others is something we all learn to balance in any relationship. Unconditional love is not an easy practice in today’s world.

    Society is a mere reflection of how we’re doing as a “society of families,” and given the rampant abuse and marginalization (and the volatile and weighty emotions which accompany these) which seem to be the dominant social make-up at this time, I’d say the picture is obviously troubling and needs attention.

    I think we’re trying to heal generational abuse, and the effects thereof, and somehow transmute all that trauma energy into something meaningful and forward moving, a new clarity. Can we learn and grow from a history of trauma rather than to repeat the same mistakes made by others? Somehow, we have to do better than what has come before, which is what has brought us to these crossroads. Good time for an awakening.

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  2. Thanks Chaya I second Alex’s response.
    Maybe add all children who are labeled which expands the area. That MI term whatcha goin to do?
    Coming from a parent yes.
    The act and process of labeling has many threads from school, from an educator, from a family member, from a doc, from a friend, from one’s self.
    In educational terms to get actual help from the school system one is forced into labeling.
    No MFI- no IEP and ah the school districts get different amount of money levels depending on the label.
    Then labeling can vary from one doc to another,
    These area areas that deserve much work and reporting. Those without resources have the hardest time dealing with the system. And there is an inherent basis against those parents with those children.
    If you could go and one is allowed with the parents request to go as support to an IEP meeting wow! And FYI in terms of forced hospitalization the IEP is a legal document and parents have rights and not sure about the child but the goal was if possible st the end have the child be part and involved in the entire process.
    PTA’s have no path for parents with children who are labeled. Privacy is a real legal issue. I would write s newsletter going out to? for parents with IEP kids- no names. What most did not know there was a lovely parent who would type and edit my writing. Even back before being in system I had dyslexia and ect issues. The drugs and the docs never ever asked made it so much worse and the lingering Parkinsonism has hurt me with communicating my thoughts and ideas.
    So I would be known but not everyone had the full story in the community or wanted to divulge how they knew. No I got your newsletter thank you. Never.
    DW Winnicut Good enough/ that’s all a parent needs to be. Let them know that- almost what you are doing but a name can lend prestige.
    Title I used to have a parent support group included with Social Workers and no labeling.Another research direction.
    And acknowledge trauma and histories. And again, mst of the best people that have come out of this world of ours have been gloriously imperfect.

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  3. This is a great article for parents who attend your workshop (parents with “regrets” or “shame”); parental honesty about shortcomings and weaknesses empowers children with more truth about their distressful experiences. Parents who care about their children and try to be nurturing deserve sympathy and more resources; parents who promote the myth of “mental illness” as a defense against parental shortcomings do not deserve sympathy.

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  4. Parents need to advocate for their children.

    There’s a story in the news about parents of children with Acute Flaccid Myelitis being told their children are faking their symptoms for attention. Faking paralysis!

    I have a letter my mother typed and wrote to my teacher in fifth grade explaining that she was aware of my visions problems (repeatedly changing visual acuity), and that my opthalmologist didn’t know what was wrong and had suggested I was faking my vision problems. This was around the same time I was kicked out of ballet class because I was passing out in class and they said I was an insurance liability.

    Because I was a severely traumatized child, nobody thought about it long enough to think something was wrong with me neurologically with vision problems and repeatedly passing out. A year later I was in a mental hospital.

    If parents don’t advocate for sick kids, no one else will! You have to be willing to invest time and mental effort in your children.

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  5. I would add or incorporate not only “not blaming oneself” for such a label but being justifiably angry that that the child has been reduced to such categorization, and making efforts to take the child out of the “care” of someone who would do so.

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  6. Really helpful advice for parents Chaya (or for anyone wanting to help)
    I agree with Oldhead on the one point of “not blaming oneself” for a label and that a parent should reject having their child labelled and categorized according to a spurious “label” the child will be stuck with for a very long time.

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  7. 8. Don’t mock your child, call their pain “symptoms” or call them crazy when they weep over their shattered lives. Don’t tell them they’re mentally incompetent, helpless and utterly dependent on you. Don’t keep reminding them how unlovable a “schizo” or “bipolar” is and how no one but you would be willing to put up with them. That they should be grateful they aren’t homeless or sent to an institution. 🙁

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  8. Hi, this is Miranda, editor of Parent Resources. I’m glad to see readers coming up with their own tasks for parents to add to Chaya’s list of seven.

    Remembering back to when I was a troubled teenager with a psychiatric diagnosis, I’ll add my own (and this is solely my personal opinion). Restrain yourself from complaining about how your child’s mental health difficulties affect you or how the expensive therapy is straining the family budget. Work those issues out within yourself, or vent to your spouse or a friend. If your child is made to feel responsible for your feelings or worries, it adds an additional psychic burden to dealing with his or her own struggles.

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  9. Chaya, this is marvelous.
    I’m not sure if you understand how much you said, but you said a mouthful.
    If you are not a parent, it sure seems you have lived a long time,
    because you see the reality of what happens in interpersonal relationships,
    from the child and parent perspective.
    This is difficult to do unless you have been child and parent, or
    have identified the complexities and the normal within the chaotic complexities.

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