Reprinted from "Parenting" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2 (2), p. 48
Growing up in a family in which one or both parents has a mental illness can present challenges for children. What must it be like to be dependent upon a caregiver who is actively psychotic, paranoid, or so deeply depressed they can hardly function? What skills do children have to cope with such circumstances?
Some children take over adult responsibilities such as taking care of younger brothers and sisters. Sometimes they also provide for the emotional or physical needs of their parent. They may feel ashamed and unable to understand the often dramatic events that occur and, as a result, avoid making connections with peers, and wind up feeling isolated and alone. For many children, it is as if they straddle two worlds: the normal one outside their home, and the unpredictable and secret one within.
Diane March, PhD, in her research on mental illness and its impact on children, found that children are especially vulnerable to the impact of mental illness iparents, due to limited coping skills and strategies. Young children, in particular, are more dependent on adults and have fewer psychological defenses.
The children of parents with mental illness are a largely forgotten group, yet are at great risk for developing behavioural problems and learning difficulties. By early adulthood, their risk for developing adjustment disorders, depression and drug and alcohol abuse is double that of the lifetime risk of the general population.
It has taken a long time to recognize that services and supports for families should include services targeted to meet the specific needs of dependent children. Fortunately, this is changing and one program presently offered in BC offers a way to support children who have a parent with a mental disorder.
At present, seven communities in BC offer a program specially designed for children who have a parent with a mental illness. The British Columbia Schizophrenia Society (BCSS)-sponsored program, Kids in Control, provides education and support to children between the ages of 8 and 13. The program runs for eight consecutive sessions, and holds meetings every few months to provide the children with ongoing support and a safe place to discuss and deal with difficulties they may be experiencing.
During the weekly onehour sessions, children are given information about mental illness, as well as the opportunity to develop and practice healthy strategies for coping with the difficulties they may be facing. Children are given several important messages such as they are not alone; other children also have parents with a mental illness. Through these messages, normalization and connectedness take the place of isolation, shame and secrecy.
Using interactive games and activities, the program delivers messages of healthy communication, self-care and self-esteem. By allowing children choice around activities, the program gives the children the message there are, in fact, some things they can control – even though there are many things in their lives which are beyond their control. The children are also given opportunities to build their resilience and develop skills to deal with societal attitudes about mental illness. As one facilitator commented, “At times I am almost overwhelmed when I think about the difficult circumstances some children face; but, at other times, I am struck by the fortitude, resilience and hopefulness some children possess.” A unique feature of this program is involvement of an adult co-facilitator who has experienced the special circumstance of growing up in a home with a parent with mental illness. The cofacilitator brings a level of compassion and understanding that only those who experience similar circumstances can omprehend.
Facilitators note that children consistently find several aspects of the program particularly helpful. The first thing routinely mentioned is the fact that learning about mental illness has helped to allay their fears because “when you learn about it, you don’t worry as much,” as one youngster explained. Another very important topic of discussion relates to stigma and helping children resist messages of selfblame and responsibility.
It is clear that awareness is growing, judging from the increasing number of requests for information regarding the Kids in Control program. As awareness grows, and as more resources become available, we hope that all children in communities throughout the province will receive the much needed support and attention they deserve.
About the Authors
Hylda is the Past Coordinator of the Kids in Control Program for the Fraser Valley. She currently works as a mental health counselor for children and youth
Nicole is the Director of Education for the British Columbia Schizophrenia Society
Reprinted with permission and adapted from an article by Hylda Gryba that originally appeared in Family Connections, Spring 2000: Focus on Children Whose Parents Have Mental Illness, published by the BC Council for Families. For ordering information see www.bccf.bc.ca email [email protected] or phone (604) 660-0675 or 1-800-663-5638
For more information about the Kids in Control program, please contact Nicole Chovil at (604) 270-7841 or 1-888-888-0029 or email [email protected]