Three Challenges for Parents with Mental Illness

“You are calm. You are in control.” These are some of the positive things I say to myself when I’m in the middle of parenting or disciplining and feel like my emotions might erupt like a volcano.

Toys might be soaring through the air. Doors are rattled. Tempers ready to burst. Fists clenched tightly. The tension in the environment is so high, it permeates the entire house. I can start to feel it in my body; something isn’t right.

I step away trying to give myself a ‘break’ or ‘timeout’ so I can regain my composure. I take deep breaths in an effort to calm my nervous system back down. Then I assess whether to reengage in a conversation or give them space if they are in what we’ve refer to as the ‘red zone.’

This is how I would like to respond when things get volatile. But I’m human and I’m not perfect. I have a greater challenge with parenting at times because I’m a parent with mental illness. I’m not saying this gives me an excuse to respond harshly and that’s the way it is. I’m not playing the victim. What I am saying is that being a parent with a mental disorder presents unique challenges when parenting your children and in your relationship with them. And often, I have to work really hard to keep my cool and not fly off the handle.

Photo by Xavier Mouton Photographie on Unsplash

Parenting is hard enough on its own. So when you throw in mental illness (or any other illness for that matter), parenting can feel like trying to mix oil and water together. If you, the parent, have a mental illness, and your child does too, that’s another level of challenges that seem insurmountable at times. It doesn’t matter what the combination is, it’s difficult to manage. An ADHD child with an anxious mother. An autistic child with a depressed father. An anxious child with an OCD parent.

If you’re in the same boat as I am, I want to say that you are certainly not alone in your struggles. And you have every right to feel all the things you feel – defeated, hopeless, or discouraged. I’ve been there. I’m sorry for what you’re going through right now.

Recently, I read a fantastic book on childhood trauma called What Happened to You? and I want to share the following quote from Dr. Bruce Perry:

“A dysregulated parent cannot regulate a dysregulated child.”

That one really struck me because of its truth and validity. How can I possibly teach emotional regulation to my child if I’ve not regulated myself? Simply put, I can’t. Dr. Perry goes on to say, “you cannot give what you don’t have.” So I’ve got to put in my own personal work (and therapy) on emotional regulation while trying to slowly teach these concepts to my child little by little. I may fail at times and resort back to being a reactive, dysregulated parent, but I know that with time and effort, and lots of grace, I will conquer this challenge. Because it is so important for us to both learn and teach the skill of emotional regulation.

We are learning and growing as parents just as much as our children are.

Photo by Samuel Regan-Asante on Unsplash

Here’s what I want you and I to do as parents with mental illness…

  1. Recognize areas of weakness and where you need improvement, no matter how much we cringe when they are exposed. There is power when naming what those areas of improvement are, saying “I need more help with regulating my emotions and being less reactive.” Then we need a plan on how to better regulate our own emotions. If you don’t have a therapist, I highly recommend finding one that is a good fit for you. I have made huge personal strides and breakthroughs from working with a therapist. There are many fantastic books and resources out there that will teach you how to better manage your emotions. One of my recommendations is Take Charge of Your Emotions by Dr. Linda J. Solie, which looks at emotions from a faith-based perspective.

2. Commit to giving yourselves and your children lots of love and grace through this crazy rollercoaster of parenting. We are going to need to forgive ourselves and our kids again and again. We are going to own our mistakes and accept our shortcomings even when it’s hard. Because we are all learning together on this journey called life. We are going to educate ourselves and come up with a plan on implementing better-coping practices for when our emotions are high and threaten to get the best of us.

3. Show up each day, persevere through the challenging days, and don’t give up. We are going to show up each day ready to learn ourselves and pass on the valuable knowledge and skill of emotional regulation to our kids. Acknowledge that some days are going to be draining on our emotions, but we will press on because tomorrow is another day. And we will try again, doing our best to practice what we preach.

How we cope with our emotions truly matters as our kids are always watching and learning from us, taking notes on how we handle and respond in situations. I want to encourage you that whatever challenge you’re dealing with, you can handle it with love, grace, and education.

Author: Kelley Spencer

Kelley is a Christian author, gardener, recovering perfectionist, overthinker, mental health advocate and mother of two boys (and one angel) living in the Midwest. She loves tacos, being active outside and planning weekend getaways. Her story, Radical Obedience, was published by Dayspring in Sweet Tea for the Soul. Kelley has God-sized dreams of publishing several books and Bible Studies designed to reach others for Christ in their most vulnerable, painful circumstances.

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