38. Boundaries when Parenting a Child with a Mental Illness

Parenting a child with mental illnessParenting is challenging, but parenting a child with a mental illness can bring on a whole other level of struggles. In this episode Mary talks with one of her clients about her challenges with raising a child with a mental illness and how setting boundaries helped take care of herself, her relationship with not only her daughter with the mental illness but with her husband and other children as well.

Mary’s client realized that she needed to take care of herself first to be able to take care of others. Mary helped her realize that maybe her daughter was just doing the best she knew how and after these realizations, she was then able to show up differently for her daughter.

Main Episode Takeaways

  • Raising a child with a mental illness can feel very lonely
  • Setting boundaries can help with all types of relationships
  • You can learn to show up differently for children and family members
  • Boundaries is about being deliberate, not just reacting
  • Advice for parents raising a child with mental illness

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38. Boundaries when Parenting a Child with a Mental Illness

Mary: Let’s talk boundaries. Today I am talking with a woman who I know and love, who has a child who has a mental illness, and I just thought that it would be wonderful for her to come and share. To listeners who might be in similar situations, some of the tips and tools and experiences that have helped her to cope and to cope well with, with this situation. So, welcome. So grateful that you’re here. 

Guest: Good to be here. Thanks. I do wanna clarify too, that. We’ll start off talking about her as a child, but she is an adult child now, so we’ve progressed through this. So at points it’ll be more of talk dealing with an adult. 

Mary: Yes, yes, absolutely. Absolutely. So we’re gonna be talking about kind of having parented a child with a mental illness, an adult child now. So let’s talk a little bit about parenting. Parenting is tough. It’s tough for most people. Right? And tell me a little bit about your experience and what makes parenting a child with a mental illness, even tougher than regular parenting. 

Guest: It’s very true, Mary. Totally true. I think one of the most difficult things we’ve had to experience is, you never know who’s gonna show up. I never know. Each time that she would come through the door what her moods would be, what her behaviors would be, if there would be impulsive behaviors, outbursts, et cetera. And before you and I started meeting, I would just become unglued. Whereas when I parented my healthy children, we just didn’t have situations like that very often. Again, erratic behaviors, they caused us to always be on alert. So there was just always this hyper alertness in the house. We had very little external support, anyone to talk to. So you feel very alone a lot of times. Parenting these children. We felt like we were constantly trying to come up with answers and decisions, and we just spend so much time with this child to the detriment of the other children that are in the house.

 We had to learn her manipulative behaviors. We had to identify them and call them out. Call them by name to us, not necessarily to her. We had to learn different ways of parenting. I thought I had it down pretty pat because I, she was my fourth child. I thought I had this parenting down, no problem. Let’s go. But the things that I did to solve problems with the other ones, sit down, discuss it together, come up with an answer, did not work in this situation. Knowing when we were enabling her versus when we were helping her. Huge issue when you have a child with a mental illness because they’re going to manipulate you also in every aspect. I feel like they stay very childlike. They don’t mature at the same rate, especially emotionally, but I didn’t know that at first. And on top of it, I had to learn about the mental illness. Cause you don’t get a lot of help for that. And I’ve also learned that I need to respond to her differently than I had in the past. So, I mean, there’s just lots of things I probably could go on with 15 more. It’s, it’s very difficult parenting a child with a mental 

Mary: Yes. Yeah. Can you tell me a little bit about how having a child with a mental illness has impacted you and your family?

Guest: Yes. There were many years that it was extremely difficult. Extremely difficult. It’s still a difficult thing to maneuver, but I feel like I’m in much better control and we’ll discuss that when we get to the boundaries and all. It was just a constant struggle until we were able to truly understand her illness and what she was capable of and what she wasn’t capable of. It was ruining my relationship with my husband. And that was a tough one until we literally sat down and made a conscious decision that we were not going to let her destroy us or our family. And that was a tough thing. 

Mary: Would you say that’s the hardest part? 

Guest: I would say emotionally it’s one of the hardest parts. Very hard. Anytime we had any kind of a family gathering, which my other children were all grown adults at the time when she was a teenager, starting off with this. We only got to see them once or twice a year, and when we would all get together, she would absolutely sabotage the event. We had a very difficult time. And then my other children, how could they know how to handle this mental illness if we couldn’t? And so they got to a point that they didn’t wanna come home and they verbalized that and said, I don’t think we’re gonna come home next year if it’s gonna be like this. So it, it truly impacted almost every aspect of our family, our relationships with friends. If we took her someplace, we didn’t know what, what would happen. We weren’t emotionally okay. So yeah, we just had to learn and understand that she was incapable of having a healthy relationship and we just had to learn how to solve this. 

Mary: And how was that coming to that realization that she was not capable of having a healthy relationship? How was that for you? 

Guest: Well, it was definitely eyeopening. Unfortunately, I can’t say I got a lot of help outside to come to that conclusion. I remember something you said to me once in one of our sessions distinctly, and it changed a lot when you said to me, what if this is the best that she can do? And that, that was very eye-opening for me because at that point before that you’re trying to solve all her problems. You’re trying to do everything. You’re trying to take care of all of her issues and trying to keep my marriage together and trying to keep my family together. So.

Mary: Yeah. That generous assumption about maybe she is doing the best she can. Maybe this is what she can do. 

Guest: Right. Yeah. It helps to get to that point to when you hear that and believe it in your heart, you can show up differently. That’s one thing that you helped me do tremendously. 

Mary: Mm, thank you. So what kind of things did you try? Let’s talk a little bit about what kind of support and services have you received?

Guest: This is a tough one, and I’m gonna start back when she was a teenager because as with many kids with mental illnesses, it doesn’t always show up until their teenage years, puberty can be an on head for it. She was a delightful, delightful child. We had no issues with her before this age. It was very difficult trying to find mental health. We started off dealing with suicides, suicide attempts, and so you go into the hospital and they put her on a three day hold, and then they send her home with you and say, I think she’s fine. I think she understands now better, and we taught her how to reach out to you if she’s feeling that way again. It’s not gonna happen. They’re not gonna reach out to you. I wish she would. But yeah, we needed more than that. . So we started looking for counselors, anything, psychiatrists, whatever. But unfortunately, 90% of what they did is put her on medication. And when they put her on medication, they would send us home. I didn’t know anything about this medication. They didn’t give me any education on this. They didn’t tell me anything. They’d send me home and now I’ve got a child with these erratic behaviors, impulsive behaviors, unable to control herself and now she’s medicated on top of it. She couldn’t stay in school. She would fall asleep on some medications and the other medications, she would just bolt up in the middle of the class. Mm. And, and, and we couldn’t get any help. That brought on another suicide attempt and we ended up going down to Children’s Hospital. And we did outpatient counseling for a while, which was helpful, but it didn’t get to the core of the problem. It was more like, oh, are you gonna be okay now let’s talk about it. This is another story for another podcast, but we did end up after doing multiple, inpatient, outpatient, all types of trying to get help for her. We did end up going out of state and putting her at a school. A therapeutic boarding school. Again, that’s another discussion. Some things I regret terribly. But we weren’t getting any direction. Mm-hmm. We had to do all the research. We had to come up with this. We did research. We felt that this was the best place to keep her alive for a couple years. Yeah, 

Mary: And that’s the generous assumption for you too, that you were doing the best that you could at that time. Right. Made the best decisions that you knew how to with the information that you had at the time, 

Guest: correct. 

Mary: Yeah, absolutely.

Guest: So, fast forward three years she becomes an adult, graduates from high school comes home. . Now it’s a whole different level of trying to find help. She’s still a mess and now she’s back in our home and it was so difficult. It was so difficult. She didn’t wanna go to school, incapable of staying in classes, incapable of holding down a job. I didn’t know what to do. So we started the whole process again of trying to find her more counseling, group counseling, someone that knew something about the E M D R and some other techniques. And each of these things did do a little bit to help. Mm-hmm. But again, we were navigating it all ourselves. Right. It was very difficult. Which put a huge strain on our relationship. 

Mary: Absolutely. 

Guest: Huge strain on our relationship. And the thing I do wanna add in here is, my daughter, you know, she’s very intelligent. She’s a good kid. She did a lot of this research on her own. She’s the one who found out about the E M D R and some of these other things. And then I would read up on it. I mean, where would I know of this? 

Mary: I love that she was empowered enough to kind of look for her own therapies and that you encouraged her and empowered her to be able to figure some of that out. Because ultimately that like self-advocacy is really gonna help her as she continues to, you know, grow with this personality disorder that she can continue to learn how to figure out what she needs and find resources for herself. So that’s amazing. Good job.

Guest: And she’s well into her twenties now and she still does a lot of advocating for herself and research and all, and will come back to us and say, will you help me with this? Are you willing to support me if I try this program or if I try this medication or if I try this? So thank God that we do have a decent relationship now that we can work together on some of this.

Mary: Yeah, I love that. Awesome. Can you tell me a little bit about how you became aware that you needed to have some boundaries?

Guest: I knew I needed help. Mm. I knew I needed help for myself. I knew that if I couldn’t be healthy and if I couldn’t take care of myself, I wasn’t gonna be able to take care of her. I can’t say I necessarily knew a lot about boundaries at that time. I think in some ways I had set some, not knowing deliberately that that’s what I was doing. But I didn’t understand the whole concept of setting boundaries and why you would set them and how to set them and to be aware of what you’re doing as you set them. But that’s when Mary Brown came into the picture. I mean, I came to you at first, I mean, I was pretty broken. I was pretty broken and 

Mary: Yeah, you were like, my family’s falling apart. They don’t even wanna come to Christmas again. Yeah. 

Guest: So, and I have a husband who’s so supportive, but he couldn’t contribute to helping me or helping the family. He relied on me to carry the heavy load and he, again, he’s very supportive and would do whatever I would suggest and all, but 

Mary: but there was a heaviness.

Guest: Oh, very heavy. And I, I just didn’t know, but truly you introduced me to this and I know it didn’t take you very long to realize that that’s what I needed, to set boundaries. 

Mary: Yeah. So can you talk a little bit, maybe an example of the first boundary that you tried setting or after we started meeting the the next boundary that we worked on and how that went. 

Guest: First I had to set boundaries around myself. What was I willing to do? How did I wanna show up? How was I able to protect my own heart and so that I wasn’t crushed every time she would attack me verbally, which was very often at the time. So I, I had to set some boundaries about me and what I was able to do. She, even to this day, needs to talk to me almost daily. And I’m okay with that now, but what I learned was, I get to make that choice. If she calls and I don’t wanna pick up the phone, I don’t. Or I may send her a quick text and say, Hey, I’m not available right now, but I’ll be available in a couple hours. So we’ve learned to communicate that way, but she needs that and I needed to be able to set boundaries around my time and my life and my activities. So that was one of the big ones, or one of the first ones that I had to do.

One of the biggest ones, and it’s still one that we have to do, are financial boundaries. It’s a huge one. When you have someone with mental illness, they are not capable of totally supporting themselves. They’re not capable of doing that. Plus all the medical, plus all the therapy, plus all the crises and all that she gets in. We’ve had to make decisions ourselves, but again, I think we’re stronger now and capable of knowing how to make these boundaries. A simple example is the each time, and I’m gonna say again, each time that she has wrecked a car the first couple times we bailed her out. And then when I learned about setting the boundaries, I would say, let’s see how much money you get from the insurance company for this car. And then we’ll see what you can get for it. She would call and say, well, I don’t know what to do and I don’t wanna go talk to this car salesman. And I would say, well, call your father. I betcha he would be happy to go with you and show you how to do this. You know, she got into some pretty gnarly situations with some salespeople. She doesn’t have the skills, she doesn’t have the maturity right to navigate a lot of world problems and issues, but now we feel confident to not just bail her out financially with everything.

That being said another boundary that we’ve had to do is we’ve had to ask her to leave. We were on a family vacation at one time and we had to ask her. We, matter of fact, we didn’t give her a choice. We said, I’m sorry, but you’re heading home today. And it was nasty. And she wouldn’t talk to us for around, she was very upset, but she came around because she knew why. I would not have been able to have made that decision. Today with the situation that we’re living with now with her, it’s actually pretty decently healthy. She’s not allowed to live in our house anymore because we tried that again a couple years ago. And it was disastrous for us because we would come home every night or day or whatever, whenever we were in our home, I should say we were so depressed and just so spiritually and emotionally and physically drained. And I had to go down and say, I’m sorry, we will give you two weeks, but at the end of this two weeks you need to find a place to live. So these are probably some of the bigger boundaries that we’ve had to make.

Mary: Yes. Those conversations about what are you willing to have in your home and what are you not willing to have in your home? And really protecting and honoring your home as your sacred space and the kind of like spirit that you wanna feel in your home. Right? And what level of comfort do you need to have in your home? And same thing for family gatherings, right? Like, what are we willing to participate in, in our family gatherings and what are we not willing to participate in our family gatherings and if our loved one shows up and is, you know, escalated, out of control, threatening, then really what are we willing to do at that point? You know, are we willing to ask her to leave? Are we willing to take some space? Like what is it that we need to do to respect and protect ourselves in those situations? And I know those were really hard for you. How are you able to follow through with those things?

Guest: I think part of it is that we never made any of those decisions impulsively. These were things that we sat down and we thought through. You need to realize with a child with a mental illness or personality disorder or whatever it is you’re dealing with. They’re not capable of taking your needs in mind. They’re not capable of thinking about how things are affecting us. Everything’s about them. The world revolves around them. Mm-hmm. So when we have to make these major decisions, my husband and I sit down and we discuss it thoroughly. What are we willing to do? What’s it gonna look like? There’s one of us in the parenting situation that still wants to bail her out. And there are times when I say, okay, let’s talk about that. Because he, he needs to have some of his needs met also. But we do it purposefully. We do it with discussion, we compromise on it. So by the time we go to her and say, this is the decision we’ve made. And this is what’s gonna have to happen. We feel very solid about it. We feel very confident. 

Mary: Yes. I love that. And how having better boundaries has really helped you to be on the same page with your spouse is one of the, you know, positive outcomes. So how has the ability to have healthy boundaries changed things for you?

Guest: Back to what I had said earlier, that in one of our sessions a long time ago when you said to me, what if this is the best that she can do? What if she’s not capable of doing whatever it is that I wanted to, when I put that together with setting boundaries, I was able to show up in a different place. I’m able now to show up regardless of how she shows up. I’m able to respond to her differently now, instead of being defensive and trying to get my way and get my point in there, I am able to sit back and listen to her and then respond as opposed to reacting.

Mary: I love that because before when we didn’t understand that maybe she was doing the best that she could do, there’s oftentimes a lot of thoughts about like, well she should do it this way or she should not do that, right? Like my other children don’t call me mean names and my friends aren’t allowed to call me mean names and Right? Or whatever it is that there’s some conversation around, in our minds around like what should be happening and what should not be happening. And so I do remember when we were coaching together and I said, what if this is the best that she can do? What if she doesn’t have the skillset for the things you’re expecting of her. What if this is what she’s capable of? Not that that wouldn’t change in the future, but for now, what if this is what she’s capable of? But there was a relief around okay, well then I just get to love her and have boundaries for myself. 

Guest: And that’s the exact next thing I was gonna say is I’ve learned to love her. For who she is and to meet her where she is. Doesn’t mean I need to lower my expectations of boundaries or how to be treated or how to react or what she’s allowed to do in our home, as you were saying. Mm-hmm. But I am able to love her and not feel disappointment, not feel like I’m comparing her, not feeling like she needs to be doing and being in the same place that all my other children are. Yes. So that was a big thing that helped me with both that statement about what if this is the best she can do, and learning to put those boundaries around. And then I also do wanna say that some of the boundaries were very tough to enforce. At first they were very tough. 

Mary: How come? What made them hard?

Guest: Well, because it was new, it was new to me, and I had to stand firm. I had to stand firm. But also when you learn about boundaries, you have to stop and think. You can’t just react. You have to stop and think about, what is it that I want? What is it that’s I expect of her. It has to be deliberate. It’s not as, I don’t have to think it through like that anymore, but at first I did have to think it through more like that. But once we set the boundary and I realized that it put her and I and my family all in a safer place, once I saw that my other children fell into place with this. They don’t get involved. They’re all very kind to her. All of them are very kind to her, but when she gets like this, they check out. They just kind of go to the back of the room and let me handle it. But they’re supportive of whatever it is that I decide to do.

Mary: Mm-hmm. How has it been with you learning boundaries? How’s that improved the family relationships with your other children? 

Guest: Tremendously. Because there’s this other piece that you don’t realize that you’re doing at first when you’re hurting and trying to find out the answers and don’t know what you’re doing, and that’s that you’re expecting your children to help solve it. Your other children, you’re expecting them to hear everything that happened. You’re expecting them. And when you learned about doing boundaries, you don’t treat them as counselors. Does that make sense? So it, it’s really helped a lot. It’s taken the burden off of them. Because if I’m not knowing how to take care of her, how can they be expecting to? Mm-hmm. no, it’s taken a lot of stress from our family. A lot of stress. Now, don’t get me wrong, we all kind of shake a little bit when a holiday comes up Not sure what it’s gonna be like. But they know now because they were with me when I asked her to leave one of the times. They know that I will handle the situation if the situation arises.

Mary: Absolutely. Absolutely. And how are you able to stay emotionally regulated yourself in those situations? 

Guest: Well, I can’t say I always do. No, I’m better now. I usually break down more afterwards. You know, when you have a child with a mental illness, it’s painful for us. It’s painful for us to see her in that state of mind. It’s painful for us to know that this is what her life is and this is what she struggles with daily. So really I do pretty well when I’m confronting her because I don’t put the emotion in it. I don’t put the anger in it. I don’t, but usually after she leaves or after we solved it, or after, I still go in my room and break down because it’s hard. It, it takes a huge strain out of you. But I get back up again and, and you know, we do, my husband and I talk a lot afterwards and it kills him to see this little girl like this. It kills him. So yeah. Still to this day, as she goes through different life crises, it’s tough on us emotionally.

Mary: Absolutely. So what advice or hope would you have for other parents who are struggling with a child with a mental illness that might be listening to this podcast? 

Guest: I think it’s a culmination of what I’ve learned through this process. One is we cannot heal our child. We cannot be responsible for her life, her actions, her relationships. Typically children with mental illness really struggle with relationships, not just with us and the family, with all of theirs. But we can’t solve those and we can’t take care of those. We most likely can’t have the relationship with them that we dreamed of and we thought we’d have or that we have with the other kids. But if we meet them where they are, if we realize that they’re most likely very behind in their emotional development, if we set healthy boundaries for ourself and our families, if we choose to show up the way that we want to, regardless of how she shows up, and that’s the regulating, you know, the emotions and all that, then I believe we can have a relationship with them and, you know, she’s grown over the years. We’ve grown over the years. We can regain control of our home again. We can regain control of our relationship with our other kids. But honestly, Mary, I mean this honestly, but the most important thing is we’ve got to learn to set boundaries.

Mary: Mm. Yes. Boundaries. Yes. Thank you. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I really think there are people out there that are gonna benefit and be really touched by by you sharing this. And I wanna tell people that there’s hope, that boundaries is a learned skill and everyone can choose to learn it. Wherever you’re at is totally okay and having children with mental illness just makes it a little bit harder, but there’s still hope that it’s possible. You can learn it. 

Guest: So true. So true. Yeah. 

Mary: Awesome. Thank you so much for being here. I appreciate you. 

Guest: Thank you, Mary, and I appreciate you and all the conversations we’ve had the last few years.

Mary: Thank you.