• Adverse childhood experiences are found to have long-lasting health and psychological implications

  • Therapist Tracy Phillips explores her work with adults who grew up with a parent with a mental health difficulty of their own

  • If you would like to address childhood challenges, find a therapist here

Being raised in a family where the parent had/has mental health issues is a complex situation for the children involved.

Some of these children will develop into adults who learn to hide from the world. They may struggle to verbally express or feel a sense of shame. Some may learn to adapt to their situation, somehow sensing something is not right in their family. Some of these children will become carers for their parent or siblings. In becoming a carer and having a heavy sense of responsibility, this may give the sense of a lost childhood. They may struggle with friendship issues or learning difficulties at school. Other children manage their family situation by solely focusing on their studies or reading.

Children need to be nurtured, to be taught how to cope with their emotions and have their needs met in various forms. Many of these children will have a  background of some form of neglect. In some cases the main focus in the family is the mentally ill parent and not the child/children. Though we understand this is often not the parent’s fault, as in many mental health cases this appears to follow in generational patterns.

According to the charity Kids Time, based in North London, "Childhood experiences, both positive and negative, have a tremendous impact on lifelong health and opportunity".

"Parental mental illness is cited as a childhood experience that can affect mental or physical health in later life. Research has shown that as the number of adverse experiences a young person faces increases, so does the risk of negative outcomes, such as health-harming behaviour, chronic health conditions and much more."

Many of these children grow into adults who struggle to get by in the world, continuing to hide or avoid their childhood difficulties. When working with these adults I often find many report that something is missing within themselves. Some describe this as a void or emptiness. Alongside this there is an often a sense of isolation, guilt and shame. Some may unconsciously reenact in their own lives the potential madness/chaos that they had experienced in their family.

There are many examples of how a mentally ill parent may have been in a family. As we are all individuals with our own experiences it would be not possible to name all of these. Though I would like to touch on a couple of potential scenarios.

Growing up with a narcissistic parent

If a parent was a narcissist then this could lead the child to grow into not having much of a sense of who they are. They may struggle to form healthy relationships perhaps also attracting narcissist partner’s in later life. They may have a sense of constantly needing to be needed by others in order to gain a sense a worth. Their relationships may possibly be abusive ones.

Growing up with a parent with depression

Though for a child whose parent has depression yet is trying their best to get by in life they may not be able to meet the child’s emotional needs. This could potentially give a child the sense of not knowing how to express their emotional needs, a sense of loneliness, sadness, confusion and fear.

Overcoming these childhood difficulties

I believe these adults who were raised by a mentally ill parent can change their future outcomes. In gently working through experiences, feelings and thoughts with a therapist this can eventually have a positive effect  enhancing positive growth and outcomes for the individual. This is where I find slow gentle work is required in order to process and heal using ego state therapy (working with different parts of ourselves) with empathy, warmth and compassion. We often hear people talk about “parts” part of me wants this job yet another part isn’t sure. An example of this could be if a person feels or thinks a part of them doesn’t feel “good enough” we would slowly and gently explore this part allowing space for this part to gradually heal thus promoting growth in a person.

If you as an adult have experienced any of these childhood difficulties, please know that you have potential to change. You can break the generational patterns for your future generations. You don’t have to suffer in silence.

If and when you chose to enter therapy it is important to remember to work with a therapist who you feel comfortable with.

Tracy Phillips is a verified welldoing.org therapist in Central London and Essex

Further reading

The lasting impact of adverse childhood experiences

Why does my therapist ask about my childhood?

How childhood shame shapes adult identity

Growing up with a narcissistic parent

Surviving a narcissistic mother