National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Parenting a mentally ill child The challenges, the stigma, the strength to cope

By Melissa Churly

SZ MagazineHis rages were ugly. Fits of yelling, shrieking, hitting, swearing, kicking, and slamming had become daily occurrences. These weren't the normal tantrums of a young boy. His mother, Monica Kriese, was certain of that ...

... As early as age 3, Kriese's son Cameron was exhibiting dangerous and disruptive behaviors. "If he could find matches or a lighter, he liked to play with them. We had a gas stove and I once caught him putting a pipe cleaner into the flame," she says. By age 5, Cameron had been kicked out of four daycares. "The daycares didn't want to keep him any longer. He couldn't get along with the other kids. He was too hard to deal with and his explosions were getting stronger."

At first Kriese blamed her parenting abilities. "I thought maybe there was something I was neglecting to do for him or that as a single parent, my need to work was having an impact on him." So she took Cameron?several times?to see the doctor. But each time she was told there was nothing wrong.

"In kindergarten, they told me he needed to be medicated because he might have ADHD (attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder)," Kriese says. "I took him to the pediatrician, but she couldn't see any one strong characteristic?not even ADHD?because at times Cameron could sit for hours and play with his Lego or plasticine. I was told it was all in my head and that he [was] just a normal boy with normal boy behaviors. But I just knew something was terribly wrong."

Frustrated, stressed, and tired, Kriese says she was "at wits end," feeling isolated and helpless.

"I had no one to help me with my son," she says. "[i] no family in town and friends who no longer wanted to have us around due to his behavior. I felt alone and my son's issues were affecting my health."

In grade 3, Cameron was finally diagnosed with childhood bipolar disorder.

Kriese's experience is not unique. Just raising a child is stressful and demanding, but raising a child who suffers from a mental illness brings significant challenges to a parent's skills and resources.

"There's a variety of challenges and some of those depend on the nature of the child's mental illness and how the child's mental illness presents," says Nadine Kaslow, a clinical psychologist and professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. "Parents can struggle with an assortment of emotions. If you have a child who is misbehaving all the time and getting into all sorts of trouble, then the parents may be mad at the child and very frustrated with the child. If the child has a psychotic illness or manic depression, parents might just be very worried about their child. It can range from sadness to anger, to frustration, to even a sense of helplessness."

When Kriese's son was in kindergarten, she was told he could only attend if she went with him, but this meant she had to work fewer hours and thus make less money. "I felt that kindergarten was very important for him because I knew he needed that social environment. So I went to class with him and this impacted my ability to earn a living that much more," she says. "I was in danger of losing my main client but I went anyway."

Parents often face an overwhelming sense of isolation when they have a child with a mental illness. "Most of my friends were pretty distant because I had this really bad child and they didn't want to be around him or invite him over. He never got invited to any birthday parties; he's only been to one in his whole 11 years. I grieved for the loss of his childhood and all the normal things that kids should be doing, [like] the loss of having friends and buddies over because he just couldn't play well."

The friends who did try to understand what she was going through would invite them over, but Kriese says she was always nervous. "I was always walking on eggshells, wondering when his next explosion was going to come, when something was going to get broken. It got to the point where I even started ostracizing us from those occasions."

The isolation extended to the medical professionals Kriese was dealing with, too. "I was worried and anxious about so many things. I remember calling his mental health clinician and asking for help and support, and I was reminded that it was my son that was the patient and there really wasn't a lot of time for parents."

Despite the many challenges, it is possible to be successful at raising a child with a mental illness.