Adult Children of Parents with Mental Illness: Losing Oneself. Who am I?


This paper presents one main theme from the findings of
the study: a loss of self for adult children who experienced
parental mental illness. Other themes, include adult children’s
experiences of fear and mistrust and navigating stigmas and secrecy are presented

Participants’ narratives demonstrated a loss of emotional
connectivity with others, a loss of social integration and
a perceived loss of opportunity during their childhood. However,
loss of knowing oneself was most apparent. All of these
factors contributed to the adult children’s perception that they
had lost awareness of who they were as people; their own
sense of reality for some participants and a sense that they
didn’t really know which emotions they should be feeling.
They had lost some degree of their own emotional literacy,
in terms of understanding and interpreting their own day to day

Questioning Who I Am or Who I Have Become

Sometimes I don’t know what emotion I should be feeling

Many participants made note of their childhood observations
of parental emotions. Some participants reported feeling that
as children, they were responsible for their parent’s sadness or
aggression. Others made alternations in their own childhood
behaviours or emotional expressions in an attempt to make the
parent better or feel better. Nicole described her experiences of
living with her mum who demonstrated mood changes.

She would be—she would go from—sometimes she would be very
down and very dark, like kind of a black mood. I couldn’t shift that.
Like, it was—yeah, there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Other
times she would be quite volatile, like the walking around the house,
and the swearing, and banging doors and things like that.

Nicole made reference to her mother’s request to leave Nicole
in Australia, so she could travel overseas. Feeling like she herself,
had caused her mother’s sadness, Nicole reluctantly agreed
for her mother to travel. Despite leaving Nicole feeling lonely
and sad, Nicole gave greater emphasis to her mother’s needs, as
opposed to her own.

I see myself as being quite parentified in that age. She was very emotionally
dependent on me. She wasn’t—she didn’t have any friends.
She didn’t have good relationships with other family members. So
she sort of relied on her and my relationship as really the only kind
of positive one. She was quite lonely and isolated. She would talk
about those feelings to me when I was quite young.

I think when I was about nine she decided she’d go overseas. I
accepted that because I sort of had this sense that Mum had this
terrible life and that she needed to go and do something for herself,
that she should—that she deserved some kind of life. I suppose, for
me, it was sort of a feeling that having me was the cause of that.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, you know, it was like a bit of a sacrifice, I

Many of the events which participants noted, contributed to
a sense of mistrust of the parent with illness, by the child. In
addition there was clear evidence that the child’s positioning
of a social “self,” “me,” and “I” as opposed to a social “us,”
“my family,” and “community” developed. However, the notion
of self, me, and I developed with a disproportionate sense of
responsibility for parental emotional well being and parental
public behaviours.

Furthermore, there has been evidence from
the study, that the notion of self, me, and I were developed with a
gross underestimation of the participants’ own value and worth
to others in their family. All of their needs, including, emotional
wellbeing, had less importance as those of other people. Their
sense of themselves as people was not paralleled to how they
viewed others in their family and wider community. Their sense
of self was becoming lost.

The sense of responsibility that adult children had for others’
emotional well-being, was not uniquely centred on the
parent with mental illness, but was also identified as a major
finding for participants with siblings. Three of the participants
who had older siblings highlighted the protection they felt from
them. They noted that older siblings often knew more about the
parental mental illness.

Older siblings often attempted to maintain
the participant’s innocence about the parental mental illness
by making no disclosure to them. However, this approach only
helped participants in the shorter term. As the parental symptomology
increased in frequency or intensity, the children with
older siblings noted that they found it exceedingly difficult to
understand their parental and familial experiences.

A common theme among participants who were the older
sibling was the overwhelming responsibility they felt to protect
their younger siblings. They would actively withhold information
from the younger sibling or would try to ensure that they
were not physically present at times when parental symptomology
was evident. This resulted in the older sibling’s continual
hyper vigilance of the parent’s presentation. Several of the participants
became distressed during the research space, when
discussing the responsibilities they felt for their siblings. The
adult children felt that they had not been able to protect their
younger siblings to what they believed was a suitable level,
resulting in additional guilt and sadness.

The participants noted that during their teenager years they
became acutely aware of the difference between their family and
other families. In addition, they were becoming increasingly intolerant
of their daily experiences. The adult children noted that
they had to make additional efforts to maintain their own emotional
well being. The findings demonstrated a significant period
where participants reported feeling they had become, or were
becoming emotionally and psychologically overwhelmed as individuals,
by their experiences.

Living with ongoing isolation
within the family; active isolation from others; living with their
day to day experiences of parental mental illness symptomology
and continually trying to navigate the parental and child relationships
was difficult to deal with. They felt they were becoming
so overwhelmed that their own sense of self was diminished.

The adult children themselves felt they were becoming lost and
felt unsure of whom they were. Several participants recalled
questioning their own identity.

Jenny highlighted this:

It looked as if I was maintaining a double life, if that makes sense. I
felt that at school I had to portray this really nice girl and at home I
had to portray the adult because my mother relied on me. So I became
the cleaner, the cook, everything. My mum just sort of switched off.
She just used to go to work and come home. My father was working
so I became the parent to my brother. So it was a really, really weird
stage in my life. I remember when I was 15 I started questioning
myself as to—how do I put it—I used to watch TV and I would try
to be the strong person that was on television, if that makes sense. If
there was an actor and I liked his qualities, I wanted to be like him.

Several adult children had been drawn to characters on the
television as role models for their development, or as Jenny alluded
to, to model appropriate coping skills for them to mirror.

Given the recognized isolation from adults both within and outside
of the family unit and the negative social stigmas associated
with parental mental illness, copying the behaviours of children
on television or in the media seems to have been at least one
available option to help guide participants’ social development.

Full paper here:

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I think there are two elements, myself - nature and nurture. I went through this experience of being my parents’ parent. My father had all of the symptoms of Schizoid Personality Disorder and some of the symptoms of schizophrenia (delusions, paranoia, social withdrawal, flat affect, avolition - just, as far as we know, no psychosis).

BUT I also believe that it is hard to separate out learned behavior and inherited characteristics.

So if I look at descriptions of mental illness, I think that when I was younger I had many of the characteristics of someone with “Schizoid Personality Disorder”. One of those is losing the sense of self. Another is the inability to express emotion. Another is feeling very lonely, etc, etc. I think I didn’t have enough characteristics to have a full diagnosis, but I had enough to make me very unhappy.

However, once I accepted that I was not happy as I was, I did set out to change myself. For example, I quite coldly and deliberately set out to improve my social skills. And it worked. I now have lots of friends. Interestingly, it was an “assertiveness” technique that taught me to recognize and express my emotions. In order to avoid quarreling, I learned to say, “When you do x, I feel y.” LOL. In order to carry it off I had to learn to identify my feelings “on the hoof”, instead of remaining unaware of them.

Fortunately, the one I didn’t have was lack of empathy, and I also was never socially withdrawn.

And then I had my son. So he had a mother who had some pretty odd characteristics. But between us there was a very close and affectionate relationship, and he was never my parent. And he ended up with depression with psychosis - possible sz.

So how much is learned and how much inherited? Difficult to say, isn’t it? What I’m saying is that the “loss of a sense of self” may be something you inherit not learn.

I have to say that when I was a teenager and supposed to “choose” school subjects, potential career, etc, I used to think “But I don’t KNOW what I want to do/be” and that actually got WORSE as I got older and went to university, etc" and it really affected my motivation badly. I was a terrible student because I had NO motivation, no image of myself in the future, no identity.

But my son had really strong ambitions, aspirations, visions of his future through his adolescence until he was 20, when it all seemed to vanish and avolition hit him like a bomb.