Estrangement is already an extremely delicate and challenging situation, and it becomes even more tricky to navigate with mental illness. The ups and downs of having an adult child with mental illness could create a nightmarish dynamic of confusion and sadness.
While it is essential to show your adult child compassion, it is also important to take care of yourself. Finding a support system and understanding your options when dealing with your adult child struggling with mental illness is crucial. This blog will provide information and resources to help navigate adult child estrangement and mental illness.
Mental illness may become apparent at any stage of childhood or well into early adulthood. There is no one-size-fits-all regarding mental illness. Each individual should be treated with the same concern as if it were a physical ailment.
Mental illnesses range in severity as health conditions affecting an individual’s mood, behavior, thinking, and ability to regulate emotions. These conditions can create instability and sometimes the inability to function normally at any stage of life.
The jury is still out on mental illness’s exact causes and triggers. Mental illness can be inherited through generations or result from childhood trauma. Other factors include biological factors such as prenatal injury, toxin exposure, damage to the nervous system, or substance abuse.
Having a child with mental illness creates a unique opportunity for misunderstanding and possible mistakes made by the parent. Parents will sometimes fail, and the child with mental illness will be less likely to understand a relationship’s routine ups and downs.
These ongoing misunderstandings between the child and parent may increase the risk of estrangement. Raising a child that struggles with their mental health in any capacity strains the home dynamic, which causes stress, worry, fighting, etc. It’s not uncommon for the adult child to assess the parenting they received as inadequate or even the reason they struggle so profoundly.
While parenting cannot be solely to blame for an adult child’s distress, sometimes the parent struggles with mental illness and cannot provide the necessary care a child needs. Narcissism has become very popular recently when discussing estrangement and parenting.
When a parent displays narcissistic personality traits, they behave in ways that seek control and manipulation and may be unable to care for or understand others’ feelings, including their children’s. Having a parent with narcissistic tendencies can cause the child to disengage and lose the vital trust that should come with a parent/child relationship.
Children with narcissistic parents may suffer low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and codependency. These factors create the perfect conditions for later estrangement.
Likewise, when parents struggle with anxiety, depression, substance use, and other mental disorders, their behaviors can be perceived as unstable, unloving, and inadequate. Research reports that adult children who reflect on their parents asses the relationship based on their relational evaluation value.
A low evaluation indicates if adult children feel unprotected, unsupported, or misunderstood. They perceive their welfare was overlooked. Consequently, in cases where an adult child feels so disconnected from parental nurturing, estrangement may be a necessary option. Feeling unsafe in the presence of another family member is a precursor to estrangement.
Abuse towards children, adolescents, adults, and parents is unacceptable and should never be excused. Abuse can have long-term effects on one’s sense of self and functioning. Individuals who have endured abuse are at higher risk for depression, anxiety, complex traumatic stress disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Individuals who choose to estrange do not do so lightly. When there is abuse, individuals estrange out of necessity and self-preservation.
Relationships may become strained when an adult child struggles with addiction or substance use disorder. As with many mental illnesses, the person with the addiction may become irritable, unable to function, and a risk to themselves or others. The stigma surrounding mental illness and addiction may produce discomfort in relationships.
The person with the addiction knows everyone’s eyes are on them, waiting for them to mess up or behave in ugly ways. With addiction, individuals may isolate themselves due to their condition and then randomly appear for help or connection.
When a parent deals with an adult child with substance use disorder, they may not know how to handle the rocky road of uncertainties. Conversely, adult children with parental substance abuse can involve a web of porous boundaries and codependency.
Estrangement and mental illness go hand in hand due to the instability they cause in relationships. A parent may be haunted by fear and worry about what their adult child is experiencing.
So what do you do? Understanding the intricacies of your adult child’s mental illness is critical. Remaining informed on the specifics can help you to know how hard it is for them. Create boundaries for yourself to implement when your adult child comes back around. It’s possible they will not reconnect, but if they do, you want to have a plan of action.
Giving support and having boundaries around what you will and will not accept from their behavior is essential. During this time of uncertainty, you’ll want to have steady self-care habits. Participating in self-care will instill in you that you are worthy of caring for yourself even though you might not be able to care for your adult child in the ways you wish to.
Estrangement and mental illness are rough topics to discuss and process. Individuals who are acquainted with a family member or their own experience with mental illness, disorders, or symptoms can agree it was not their choice. As we examine the complexity of estrangement, we consider how, if, and when it is best to cut off. When someone you care for deeply cuts ties, it can be heartbreaking. However, it may be all they can do to sustain a degree of mental clarity.
Undoubtedly the condition of estrangement is enormously painful, causing grief and uncertainty for all parties. For some, cutting off was the choice they did not regret because the relationship was unmanageable. Others struggle to accept and move forward as they cope with the decision of another to cut ties.
Mental illness is one contributor to estrangement that is extremely difficult to navigate. Each individual struggling with a mental illness deserves compassion without judgment; however, the foundations of relationships may waver. The unpredictability of how your adult child is faring without continuous communication can cause excess stress. It’s essential to stay informed, get support from a group or therapy, and prioritize self-care.
What self-care steps have you started that support you in your estrangement condition? Has mental illness impacted your estrangement condition?
I have a daughter, non-biological, that was first a foster, then I became her guardian. She had a severe history, I love her. Her strength to overcome a past that had every type of abuse possible was inspiring. She suffered grand-mall seizures in her sleep (PNES) and constant PTSD. Her healing was continously improving. She was in college, seizures stopped. Then she had a serious car accident. I took time off work, and even though I was warned and alert to a set back, she seemed to rise again. Then substance abuse and domestic abuse with a boyfriend made it obvious that she had not healed from either incident. I desperately tried to intervene, but now she has decided to cut ties, but goes back and forth. She has no safe place. I suggest that boundaries are important, but I keep the option for safety. I wrote her a letter and put it in her car. I hope she read it and knows I love her. I am now financially responsible for her car and insurance and make sure she has a phone, but cannot stand by, stand back and watch her destruction. I reach out to supports and she is always on my mind. She can hate me, but as long as she becomes healthy I will be OK eventually. This is not a black and white equation, each situation is different, but don’t give up, and don’t take it personally, especially if you’ve grown as a parent, remember you love them and even when being tough do it with love.
I commend your loving attention to your daughter. You are doing the only thing you can do for an adult child who cannot or will not help herself. I think “not taking it personally” is the key. Children, even grown ones, will strike out at the person who loves them best, and at least you are giving your daughter an example of what a mother’s love can be. Get as much support as you can from friends and family and make that support about you, not your daughter. With your good attitude and ability to see both sides of the situation, you are doing the best you can.
In response to Diane:
Gosh, well how are narcissistic children made? They aren’t born that way. They can become narcissistic through abuse, neglect, any number of situations that are not necessarily either parents’ fault, as most of us parent the way our parents parented us, but often children are narcissists because of a narcissistic parent. Maybe this article wasn’t written for you, as one size does not fit all, but to trash the article/blog because you are angry at the world and your child isn’t very helpful, is it? So why don’t you submit your own story if you don’t think you are being represented here?
They certainly can be “born that way.” Where did you ever get the information you just posted? Do you have a mental health degree?
I am wondering where you get your information? The internet is rife with misinformation and blogs that reflect personal opinion and misinformation. Narcissists are indeed not “born that way” but are made. You may not have made them that way but they were not born narcissists. It is not hereditary.
Yet again everything seems to revolve around it being the parents’ fault, and that the child chooses estrangement because a parent must be the narcissist. How about when it is the manipulative toxic 40 year old child that is the narcissist, and it is the mother of that adult child that chooses repeatedly after trying again and again, to estrange that adult child for her own sanity and self repsect? I am getting tired of parents being blamed for or somehow responsible for the issues of adult children that made their own choices and dug their own hole for decades, and that is somehow the mom’s fault. I call Bullshit.
As do I!
I couldn’t agree more!
Hi Diane: Thank you for writing. You make a valid point about toxic, manipulative adult children.
My son and I have been navigating the murky waters of estrangement and adult mental illness for many years now, with varying degrees of success. I have been dealing with depression rather successfully ever since my early thirties, about 40 years, and most of the time I do very well with a low-dose antidepressant and various tools from CBT to meditation and talk therapy. I was dismayed to see the signs of depression emerge in my son when he was in his early teens, and as he has gotten older it has gotten more pronounced. He is a sensitive man, an empath, a hard row to hoe for anyone these days. To complicate issues, his narcissist father recently left us after a 30+ year marriage so we both went through abandonment issues at the same time. He lives in an apartment here that is separate from my house, and there were weeks that we did not even talk to each other because he couldn’t bear my pain and he felt a great deal of anger he couldn’t express. I wanted to help but he did not want my help at all, and the only thing I could do was to stop hovering over him and give him space. When I realized that he had to work it out for himself, our relationship began to get better. I did what the article suggests, establishing boundaries, and I sought out new friends and reached out to family living in other areas of the country by email and phone. I tried to make contact with my son every day just to see him with my own eyes, just make sure he was okay, sometimes offering him a meal I had made or some little gift, but otherwise remaining a separate person. I bit back my desire to make it all better and just worked on myself and my own issues. He has been slowly recovering from his depression on his own but he knows I am always here for him. Sometimes that is the best you can do.
Thank you for sharing your story with us. I am grateful for you and your son that you were able to find a path that gave you some relief. You have summed it up beautifully by saying that you “bit back your desire to make it all better and just worked on myself and my own issues. Sometimes that is the best you can do.”
Yes, you did the best you could do. We can only manage our own lives and do our best to show compassion to ourselves. I am glad you and your son have found a way to have a better relationship.
Thank you again for sharing
Another Bs blame mom post
Thank you, Cindie, for your comment. I agree that solely blaming a parent for an adult child’s mental illness is BS. From my clinical experience and the research, it is helpful to understand how adult children perceive so parents can cope with what they are up against.
Interestingly, not everyone is ready or willing to hear others’ viewpoints.