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Parenting Adult Children with Mental Health Issues

By Christine Field October 31, 2020 Family

Mental illness. The term itself is intimidating. For me, it brought back shrouded stories from my youth of friends and relatives who suffered the colloquial ‘nervous breakdown.’ Back then I didn’t know what that meant.

The spectrum of mental health issues is vast and encompasses everything from depression to schizophrenia. The prevalence of mental health issues among young adults is staggering.

Here are the numbers according to the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI):

  • 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness in a given year.
  • Annually, 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. experiences a serious mental illness that substantially interferes with or limits major life activities.
  • A mental health issue can lead to another nightmare – a substance use disorder.
  • Among the 20.2 million adults in the U.S., who experienced a substance use disorder, 10.5% –2 million adults – had a co-occurring mental illness.

The social impact is enormous. Research shows that 26% of homeless adults staying in shelters live with serious mental illness. Not all get or seek treatment. Only 41% of adults in the U.S. with a mental health condition received mental health services in the past year.

Mental Illness and Our Children

According to the same researchers at NAMI, half of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14; three-quarters by age 24. There are often long delays between the first appearance of symptoms and when people get help.

In our family, because the issue presented with our first child and we were inexperienced parents, we had trouble distinguishing normal adolescent behavior from something more serious.

When she was diagnosed at age 16 with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder we had no idea of the roller coaster ride ahead.

What to Do When Your Child Suffers

Prior to age 18, your opportunity for input in their treatment is wide open. You have access to their medical providers and can collaborate with them. By law and practicality, you are involved in their everyday life.

After age 18, the adult child will call their own shots. It is important to focus on preserving the relationship so you can have some input into their lives.

You may be called upon to abandon your expectations and dreams for them. The brilliant daughter bound for medical school who succumbs to bipolar disorder may adopt different goals and a different timetable from what everyone anticipated.

If the challenge is less serious, or lasts for a shorter time period, you need to be aware that they may take longer to launch into independent adulthood.

Remember that some of our kids transition into adulthood easily and flourish. Others don’t – especially when there are mental health issues.

College-age years, in general, can be rocky. Even a moderate depression can side track a motivated child. Have your child sign a medical release form so you can be involved if they suffer a significant episode while away at school.


Some of the most important teaching I ever received has been to learn about the concept of boundaries. As moms, we want to be close and bonded to our children and significant others. If the bonding is not healthy, it can result in the parties not knowing where one ends and the other begins.

Why Is This Important?

Let’s say your child requires medication, but doesn’t like taking the medication. When they don’t take it, they are impossible to live with.

It can take a degree of inner strength and detachment to tell the adult child, “If you don’t go along with treatment and take your medication, you cannot stay in our home.” If your boundaries are poor, it will be too hard for you to do this.


Don’t go through this alone. You are not the only parent dealing with the challenge of parenting an adult child with a mental health issue.

If you need your own counseling to deal with your child – get it. It serves no one’s interests if you become unable to deal with your own life. Be the healthiest person you can be, so you will be the best able to help your child.

Get support! I wholeheartedly recommend getting in touch with the NAMI group. There are chapters around the country, and they offer vital services – to both parents and the individual who suffers.

My first step to healing and health began when I took a parent-led class called Family-to-Family. It is a free, 12-session educational program for family, significant others, and friends of people living with mental illness, taught by families affected by mental illness.

While you will learn theory and definitions, you will also gain practical wisdom from families who have been in the trenches.

Parenting an adult child with mental illness will come as a surprise to you. Don’t let it destroy you.

Get educated, get healthy and strong yourself, and get the support you need to meet this challenge with grace and wisdom.

If you are also suffering from estrangement from your adult child, please join the warm, supportive community at the Facebook Group – Parents of Estranged Adult Children.

Are you involved in a relationship with a child with mental illness? What steps are you taking to heal yourself and help your child? Please join the conversation so that we can support each other.

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Anna Falkenbach

Yes! I am!

Sherry Wimer

My son is 45 and is bipolar with PTSD, chronic asthma. He was married. Has 2 grown daughters. He lives an hour and half from me, with his 81 year old grandmother. He has Medicaid and food assistance. He has been trying to get disability but has a hard time following through in order to apply. So when he calls me needing money for gas, or medicine he calls me and I usually send him what he needs. He has been to rehab for drugs and alcohol. I am to the point that I cringe when I see his name on my caller ID. This has been going on since his divorce over 6 years. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.


Looks to me like boundaries need to be set. What incentive is there to get that paperwork filled out? He has a roof over his head and an atm in you!

Sounds brutal, I know. It’s easier to see in others what we can’t or won’t in ourselves. There’s no love like a mother’s love!

Sometimes the best thing we can do for our adult children is let them struggle. Tell him the well is dry and don’t be surprised when he uses his brain to fill out papers and not on manipulation.

When he realizes that disability is his money source and not you, encourage him to feel good about his accomplishments. Getting disability for mental illness is not an easy task and requires support from everyone around him to do it. If you have to pay for his attorney, then look at it like an investment. Your son is an adult and needs to be treated like one whatever that looks like.

Sherry Wimer

Thank you so much! He received papers from his disability lawyer and has filled out his portion. Now the psychiatrist has to sign them so he has made a little progress. His lawyer is working pro bono. So that helps. Thanks again for your advice.

The Author

Christine Field is an author, attorney, speaker, listener and life coach. She has four grown kids, mostly adopted, mostly homeschooled. She provides MomSolved© resources and reassurances to moms facing common and uncommon family life challenges. Christine helps moms rediscover their mojo for wholehearted living after parenting. Visit her website here

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