Kids in Control: When A Parent has Mental Illness

Kashmir K. Besla, MA

Web-only article from "Trauma" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 3(3)

Kids in Control is a psychoeducational group for children ages eight to 13. The eight-week group helps children understand their parents’ mental illness and learn how to take care of themselves.

I have been facilitating this group for three years in various communities in the Fraser Valley. One child that I worked with has stayed in my mind for a long time. She was an eight-year-old girl. I will call her Raven.

Raven had lived with just her mother since she was two, after her parents had divorced. Raven’s mother experienced delusions and hallucinations and acted out in ways that were unusual and unexplainable to the child. But Raven believed in her mother, to whom she had a strong attachment; she had never had another caregiver. Raven didn’t recognize that her mother had mental illness. The mother kept her illness hidden, and it was years before she received an accurate diagnosis and treatment.

At school, Raven began to exhibit behaviours that concerned her teachers. She shared her “special powers” with friends, but the friends began to withdraw from her, saying she was “strange” and “weird.” They began to avoid her and to make fun of the stories she told. Raven often played alone, and spoke intently to her imaginary friends, the only consistent friends she had ever had. Academically, she was struggling; her reading and writing levels were years behind. The other children noticed this as well, and it was another excuse to tease and belittle her. At times, the young girl was oblivious to the teasing and bullying; at other times she was very aware that she was being ostracized.

The school situation prompted an investigation by the Ministry for Children and Families, and Raven was removed from her mother’s care.

Shortly after being placed in her father’s care, Raven came into the Kids in Control group. It became clear almost immediately that she had been affected by her mother’s illness. She described unusual situations that she and her mother had experienced. She talked about special powers she had, and how she could use her powers. She talked about being afraid of certain people and how the “bad men” were trying to hurt her and her mother. Many of the stories were of a disturbing nature, and were obviously a result of things her mother had said to her.

In an unusual twist of circumstances, I happened to be assigned to work with Raven in a family outreach program. My initial assessment of her concluded that she had experienced trauma while in her mother’s care. She had normalized the incidents, and believed that all young people had the same experiences growing up.

One of the goals of Kids in Control is to help children recognize that they are not responsible for their parent’s illness. Raven had, in effect, been her mother’s caregiver since a very early age. She truly believed the frightening stories her mother had told her. Affected by the years of fear that had been instilled in her, Raven was afraid to meet or trust new people. And she had difficulty understanding that many of the things her mother had said to her were false, and the result of delusions. Somehow the two had survived, depending on one another, and not letting anyone into their lives.

Raven attended the Kids in Control program twice over two years. She gradually learned about mental illness, and finally came to her own conclusion that her mother had been in need of medical attention for a very long time. She came to recognize that much of what she had learned about the world from her mother was false.

I knew that the group had been a success for Raven when one of her teachers told me Raven was telling other kids at school that she was not responsible for her mother’s illness. She was saying, “I can’t cause it; I can’t control it; but I can take care of myself.” This is one of the phrases that the children in the group learn.

The Kids in Control group also allowed Raven to see that she was not alone in having to understand a mental illness. Although not all of the participants in the group have experienced trauma, they are all relieved to know that their situation is not unique, and that help is available. In a world where children feel powerless at times, they learn that they can have the power to take care of themselves, and not feel ashamed of their parents’ struggles with mental illness.

For more information about the Kids in Control program, please contact the BC Schizophrenia Society at 604-270-7841 or 1-888-888-0029.

 
About the author

Kashmir is a Family Counsellor at the Children's Foundation in Surrey and facilitates the Kids in Control Program in the Fraser Valley. Kashmir is an active member of the community, and is passionate about issues faced by children and families