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How to Survive When Your Child Has a Mental Illness

There are times when surviving is all a parent feels like they are doing. From broken bones to broken hearts, we survive one crisis after another. Parenting can be difficult enough if your child is healthy, but if they have a mental illness it can be life-altering.

My son was 11 years old when he told me that life was not worth living. That statement started our family on a roller coaster ride of ups and downs for over 10 years. My son’s illness brought pain and heartache into our lives, but it also brought an awareness of gratitude. How I responded to his needs defined our relationship for the future.

How can you survive your child’s mental illness?

  • Research information about his or her illness. Knowing the signs, symptoms, and triggers will be invaluable. It’s not important to have an exact diagnosis, but giving an illness a name and being informed about care and treatment can bring an element of peace to your life.
  • Make time for yourself every day. I know you are thinking it’s impossible; however, caring for your child will become impossible if you do not. Enlist the help of anyone who volunteers or just ask for what you need. It is amazing what a 10-minute walk in the fresh air can do to clear your head and restore your strength.
  • Find a competent mental health counselor for yourself and your child. Enroll in a local support group. They are a great way to meet like-minded individuals, are usually free, and can be found online, at local schools, or churches. The two largest mental health organizations, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health America, both offer online information about groups and classes. Don’t forget about siblings. They are affected just as much as you are and also need support and counseling.
  • Set clear guidelines, rules or limits. Be aware of enabling or repeatedly rescuing him or her. This can lead to a codependent parent/child relationship.When my son was experiencing severe depression, I did everything for him because I wanted him to feel better. This overprotective parenting led to an unhealthy relationship. During that time I often felt helpless and without choices.After speaking with a counselor, I realized that my bond with my son was no longer safe or healthy. I slowly let him handle decisions for himself, allowing him to feel pride in what he did, and then I could validate and praise him. Over several months our relationship changed from an enabling one to a nurturing one.
  • Full-time treatment. If you have the financial means, try a treatment program. Full-time or part-time treatment programs offer safe, therapeutic environments for your child to learn skills and strategies to help him- or herself. These programs can also give parents a much-needed break from full-time care.
  • Honesty. Do not conceal the truth about their illness from your child. It is important that he or she understand their mental disorder so they can be aware of symptoms and triggers as well as being involved in his or her own care.
  • Independence. Once your child turns 18, give him or her opportunities to be responsible for his or her care, even if it means they fail. And if they do fail, be there to support, validate, and encourage them to try again. It is only through failure that we learn how to succeed. There are two great action plans to inspire anyone with a mental health condition or another illness to set out a strategy for their own care and wellness. The first one is known as Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) and the other one is called Mad Maps from a group known as the Icarus Project. Both of these offer invaluable information and tools for maintaining mental and physical wellness.
  • Forgive. Don’t blame yourself or your child. Nobody wants to have a mental disorder. It’s nobody’s fault.

The daily energy spent on helping a child mature to be a productive citizen is enormous. If they have an illness, the energy expended goes up considerably. Don’t give up hope. Savor the good times. If you are struggling and drained of energy and life-force you can’t help your child.

It is impossible to do it all yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask for help in your community. As the time-honored African proverb says, it takes a village to raise a child. So use your village or community and get the help you need and deserve.

Mentally ill youngster photo available from Shutterstock

How to Survive When Your Child Has a Mental Illness

Theresa Larsen

Theresa Larsen graduated from Florida State University with a degree in elementary education and a minor in psychology. She taught school in England, Wales, and the United States for over twelve years. She is a trained presenter and coordinator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s “Ending the Silence”, a mental health awareness program for youth. She is also a writer and her writing credits include a Welsh children's book, an educational article published in the Cardiff Advisory Service for Education, parenting and mental health articles published on Yahoo, PsychCentral, The Mighty, The Stigma Fighters Anthology Volume 2, and her award-winning memoir, Cutting the Soul: A journey into the mental illness of a teenager through the eyes of his mother. Learn more about Theresa at

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APA Reference
Larsen, T. (2018). How to Survive When Your Child Has a Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 3 Jul 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.