What to Do When Your Parent Struggles With Mental Illness or Addiction

Mental illness and addiction aren’t always easy to talk about—especially when they hit close to home. If you have a parent who suffers from either, it’s a lot to carry on your shoulders. It’s likely that you have a number of questions and it’s not always easy to know whom to ask. This guide can help you sort through your worries and concerns.

It’s More Common Than You Think

About one in five Americans grow up in a household where a parent has a substance abuse disorder or misuses alcohol. The number of teens who have a parent with a mental illness may be even higher, considering that up to 25 percent of adults are diagnosed with a psychological disorder—such as depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia—each year.

You’re not alone in how you feel, and you don’t have to cope with the situation by yourself. If you’re upset, confused, or scared, talk with a trusted adult. You could go to a guidance counselor, your doctor, a teacher, another relative, or your rabbi. Although the situation is complicated, these people can help you feel better and talk through strategies that allow you to have more control over your life. An adult might also be able to get help for your parent as well.

Know Where to Draw the Line

Teens have a ton of responsibility on their plate—from getting a summer job to applying to colleges. If you have a parent who struggles with a mental illness or addiction problem, you may also feel like it’s your responsibility to support them. It’s even possible that there’s been a role reversal in your household. Instead of your parents taking care of you, you’re the one taking care of them. Maybe you’re taking on extra work to earn money for your family, or doing the majority of the household chores, or making sure your mom or dad is eating enough healthy food. You are trying to manage someone else’s emotional state along with your own, and the weight of this responsibility is tremendous. It might feel “normal” if you’ve been doing it your whole life, but it’s hard to grow and discover who you are as a person when so much of your time is consumed trying to support someone else’s emotional needs.

If caregiving for your parents interferes with your own life, it’s a red flag,” says Molly Bobek, LCSW, director of clinical implementation at the Center on Addiction in New York City. And we’re not just talking missed homework. Caring for a parent can get in the way of fun and important moments, such as exploring new hobbies, dating, and having adventures with friends.

You Control Your Destiny

It is understandable to worry that if your parent has a mental illness or substance abuse problem, you may develop one as well. In truth, you can be predisposed for certain forms of addiction, and it’s true that some mental illness has a genetic component, meaning children of mentally ill parents are more likely to develop a mental illness themselves. Being aware of this possibility is key, as it means you can seek help sooner should you ever feel like something is “off” inside.

Equally important, much of what people learn about how to handle stressful situations or a tough day at school or work comes from watching their parents. If you have a parent that copes with stress by coming home and drinking, it may seem to you like that’s a good strategy. Talking with a trusted adult like a guidance counselor or youth group leader can help you learn other, more constructive ways to deal with stress. These conversations can also remind you that you have people in your corner to provide support and advice, should you ever need help.

How to Stay Safe

Worrying about your safety is a common experience if you have an unpredictable parent, particularly if your parent’s illness or substance abuse problem make them act violently. If you are worried about your own safety or health, it’s really important to reach out to a caring adult for help.

“It is normal to feel protective of your parents, but your safety is the main concern,” says Bobek. “You can ask trusted adults to help you, and you should keep asking until you feel safe and supported.”

Don’t worry that you are “telling” on your parent, or that they will retaliate against you for speaking up. Once you explain what’s going on to a teacher, rabbi, or another adult, they will understand the seriousness of your situation and work with you confidentially to find a safe solution.

Special thanks to our expert:

Molly Bobek, LCSW, Director of Clinical Implementation, Center on Addiction in New York City

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