Parenting tips for children with a mentally ill parent
August 17, 2017 2:33 PM   Subscribe

I need parenting tips for children who have a parent with severe mental illness.

I'll explain. My spouse has a five year old daughter whose mother has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Mother does not accept this diagnosis and refuses to get treatment. We share custody (for now). I have seen behaviors in the child that concern me and which I am worried may be things she has learned as coping mechanisms to deal with her mother.

First, she is very closed off, meaning she rarely will tell us anything about her life (times when she is not with us) voluntarily. If we ask her anything (likes, dislikes, etc), she 'll usually say something broad and non-committal or just say she doesn't know. Example: "Hey [child], do you like going to the zoo?" Child: "I don't know." (We know she's been to the zoo.)

We have a child therapist (who has met with and knows all of us - both parents, myself and child), who agrees that she is closed off and says that it's because she doesn't know what the "right" answer is. She has suggested that we volunteer what we think about things, for example, with the above zoo conversation, for us to say something like, "I've been to the zoo and I really enjoyed it." Or, "The zoo is fun, but sometimes when I go, it gets a little tiring for me because of all the walking I have to do."

I also know that mother withholds affection from child when she is upset at something child has done. As a result, I believe the child has learned to tell the mother what she believes mother wants to hear and is sometimes excessively agreeable. I understand the child does this as a mechanism to keep herself safe, but I worry she is also doing that with us, so we try to honor her feelings, opinions, decisions, etc. so she doesn't have to feel scared of upsetting us. We also try to teach her that she won't get in trouble nor will we be upset if she does or doesn't want to do something we might suggest.

I know mother has also taken the child to multiple professionals and alleged (in front of child) things of us that are simply not true, in an effort to get mandatory reporters to call CPS on us. I suspect that mother making claims that the child knows to not be true (e.g. we never bathe her) must make a young child question her own reality. Mom also tells the child fantastical lies about us, e.g. dad is incapable of taking care of her (not true) because he has bipolar disorder (also not true - he has never been diagnosed with any mental illness). When she asks us if these things are true, we tell her they aren't, while trying as hard as we can to not badmouth her mom. But, I'm sure all of this is very confusing to her.

These are just a couple of examples. Despite all my looking, I'm having a hard time finding any info on how to help kids who have had to deal with this kind of thing from a parent, and how to counteract it. I've found lots of books that talk about the effect a parent's mental illness has on a child, and what adult children can do to heal, but nothing with specific examples on how to counteract the specific issues that a BPD parent can cause when the child is still young.

I have found this book, which is good and gives a lot of good info, but is mainly focused on adult children. This child is only five and we're really hoping to help prevent the kind of long-term problems that can occur in people with borderline parents. The one thing that seems to be a constant theme in everything I've read is that BPD parents are very invalidating, so I've concluded that always striving to be as validating as we can is important.

Please accept everything I've said above is true and understand that I can't give more details because this is a custody issue. We will almost certainly gain full custody in the future, but we have to go through the whole legal process which takes some time, unfortunately. I'm not looking for alternate explanations for what mother is doing - pretty much everything I've said is documented in some way, and is the way I've described it. I'm looking for practical parenting tips (or books) for how to help this child grow up as happily and normally as possible. People who have had parents with PD's who can weigh in with what would have helped or did help them would also be welcome.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Great book about dealing with someone who has Borderline Personality Disorder, also useful for dealing with anyone who has poor boundaries, is manipulative, highly dramatic, etc. Stop Walking on Eggshells.

In my experience, the person with the personality disorder will demand praise, reassurance, acceptance, loyalty. You can casually reassure Child It's okay; you don't have to like everything I like. I'm going to love you no matter what.
The person with the personality disorder may be emotionally volatile. You can be especially careful to show that you can be sad without being devastated, happy without being manic, etc.
People with emotionally ill parents have a poor sense of normal, so teach Child how the world works; hard to explain but children generally benefit from structure - regular meal- and bed-times, predictable expectations Child, dinner will be ready soon, you can watch this show until 6, then please wash your hands and set the table.

When my son was a little boy and I got divorced, we had hand puppets that were basically stuffed animals you could put your hand in. He could clearly see my hand in the puppet and recognize my voice, but the puppets could say things he might not listen to from me, and he could ask questions and tell the puppets things he didn't tell me. The puppets also told stories with morals, like how a boy disobeyed, caused trouble, and his puppet friends helped him resolve the consequences and get home safely, and his Mom and Dad loved him no matter what.

Be calm about the Mom, and encourage the child to love and respect her. Yeah, like that's easy. But the message that Mom, Dad, StepMom are loveable and should be respected is a good message that may help counteract any sabotage.
posted by theora55 at 2:59 PM on August 17, 2017 [5 favorites]

One thing that occurs to me instantly and that I'll post while waiting for more replies is that in general, at that age, with a kid who's undergone any kind of trauma, doing is important, too. Doing things with the child -- small, soothing things like coloring, cooking -- without much conversation, or just neutrally narrating what's happening, can offer her respite from having to guess or come up with the right answer.
posted by nohattip at 3:05 PM on August 17, 2017 [34 favorites]

Australia has resources on COPMI, children of a parent with mental illness.
posted by quercus23 at 3:32 PM on August 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Be compassionate towards the BPD mother in the presence of the child. BPD is very, very difficult for the person who has it, and while their behaviors are scary and sometimes desctructive, it comes from a place of intense pain.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 3:34 PM on August 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

+1 for Walking on Eggshells. My mother had BPD and it helped me tremendously. It is definitely more geared towards adult children, but I hope you will find strategies to help you.

As a child, my biggest issue in coping with my BPD mom was that I never knew which mom I would have on any given day - the charismatic, engaging one who I adored, the uninterested one who I just shrugged off, or the invective-spewing, spiteful one I tried to avoid at all costs. I used to love going to my best friend's house, because her parents were just so ordinary and friendly (whereas, of course, she envied mine because my parents were so cool and interesting) - I loved knowing what we were having for dinner, what time bedtime was, and that there would only ever be good-natured banter around the dinnertable, no vicious and cutting humor. So my advice to you is: Be stable. Be accessible. Be calm.

Good luck, and thank you for stepping up. It's not easy.
posted by widdershins at 3:39 PM on August 17, 2017 [11 favorites]

Ask simple questions and be honest.

One way to do this to counteract erroneous or manipulative things her mom has said is to simply ask her opinion and allow her the space to express it (if she wants to). Let her figure out for herself, with your gentle guidance, what's true and what's not. So, for example, if the mom is saying you never bathe her and she mentions it and seems confused, ask, "what do you think?" Since you do bathe her she'll probably respond with an affirmation of that fact. Then, she may verbalize her confusion, "why would she say that if it's not true?" Be truthful, "I don't know" and reaffirm "if you ever feel like you don't bathe enough here, you let us know, most of all we want you to feel safe and happy."

This approach has the benefit of not having to get into why the mom is saying these things that aren't true. You're getting her to acknowledge that what she is witnessing is indeed real, that it is confusing to say otherwise, and that, no matter what, the thing you are most dedicated to is her emotional and physical safety.
posted by scantee at 3:48 PM on August 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

Trauma-Proofing Your Kids: A Parents' Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy and Resilience would be a great resource for you.

The other thing I'd work on would be making sure you model non-black-and-white thinking, because people dealing with Borderline Personality Disorder tend to see things in very stark binaries. Saying things like "The zoo is fun, but sometimes when I go, it gets a little tiring for me because of all the walking I have to do" is great, because it shows that something can be fun and tiring. People can be happy and sad! Parents can be loving and mean! Etc. This is something kids' brains can't always do, but it's good to keep modeling it, I think.

There is DBT (which is the recommended therapy for people with Borderline Personality Disorder) for kids, and workbooks for such (an example; I haven't read or used it myself). That says 7 years and up, so maybe give it a bit depending on her reading/maturity level, but I would suspect that explicitly learning some of these skills will greatly increase her ability to cope healthily with her mother.

Make sure you're not also -- in totally well-intentioned ways! -- expecting the child to have the "right" answer to please you and your partner, even if it would be a true-er answer than the one that would please her mother. Five years old is really young to understand that different rules apply to different adults, and that what's safe with one adult is not at all (emotionally) safe with another. Keep validating, keep modeling healthy ways of disagreeing, keep giving her additional coping mechanisms, but try not to yank away those coping skills that are keeping her safe with her mother.
posted by lazuli at 4:42 PM on August 17, 2017 [8 favorites]

try not to yank away those coping skills that are keeping her safe with her mother

This is the first thing I, the child of a mother with BPD, thought when I read your question. The best possible thing that you can do for your stepdaughter is to get full custody, as soon as possible, and it's so good to read that you're working on this.

In the meantime, do the rest of what lazuli suggests - keep validating, keep modeling healthy ways of disagreeing, keep giving her additional coping mechanisms, show her what healthy boundary setting looks like, and don't punish her for these adaptive skills she's developed. They are the only tools she has to even try to protect herself from her mother. Be ready for the fact that it will be years before she unlearns these behaviors, and that every time she visits her mother they'll come back. Be patient. Be consistent.
posted by amelioration at 6:15 PM on August 17, 2017 [6 favorites]

I have zero experience with your situation. I did raise a child who has very black and white thinking. I wish it had occurred to me to model more my thinking about stuff out loud. Things like, "I'm thinking about going to X on the weekend. This part I know I will enjoy; that other part I'm not so sure about." Another thing that's really great is just modelling screwing up things and not getting angry at yourself. Like, "I just spilled some water. That's okay though, I can just clean it up." I was terrified to do anything wrong around my alcoholic dad. When I was growing up, I was supposed to be perfect at all times, which was especially hard because the definition of perfect could change at any time. Sounds like you, OP, and your partner are of vital importance to this child and you're both doing a great job of advocating for her. Routine and all that is super important, as mentioned above. Routine and boundaries, reasonable ones, show children that they are safe and loved. Best of luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 6:26 PM on August 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Read The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk.

As someone who grew up with a parent similar to this, the most helpful thing to me was having a safe, stable adult outside the family who modelled what typical healthy interactions and relationships looked like. Specifically, an adult who accepted me unconditionally exactly the way I was, weird coping skills included (and boy, did I develop some weird coping skills to deal with my mother's bullshit). It wouldn't have helped if those adults had directly discussed with me that they believed my mother had issues - probably this would have made me feel more anxious, confused and guilty about whether I was "betraying" my mother. Most kids feel an inherent sense loyalty to their parents, regardless of how terrible they are - as others have alluded, this is an important survival mechanism and not something you should take away from them.

But yes. Read The Body Keeps The Score, get an understanding of how developmental trauma can affect kids, and learn how you can create a stable place of safety and attachment even when the kid's mother isn't doing such a great job of it. Then just unconditionally be that safe place, without ever expecting the kid to "take sides". Love her unconditionally and let her love you both, whatever form that love takes. If things are really that bad with her mother, as she grows up she'll naturally come to understand that one kind of love is healthy and safe and feels good, and the other kind of love is kind of terrible. If you do your job well, she'll have a really great model for understanding what the good kind of love looks like and feels like and she'll be able to carry that forward into her future instead of repeating the patterns she learned from her mother.
posted by embrangled at 8:17 PM on August 17, 2017 [6 favorites]

Thinking on this more: Respecting her current coping mechanisms with her mother is a way of validating her. Giving her the message that those skills are bad or unnecessary is actually a way of gaslighting her. Those skills are totally necessary for her right now. You can absolutely be sad that that's the case, but let her do what she needs to do to be safe, and teach her that you'll love her regardless. She can unravel those skills when she's no longer so young and vulnerable. Trust me -- as a therapist, I know that even adults in their 50s or 60s can change those patterns, and that that change is much quicker and easier (and generally earlier) for people who had adults in their childhood displaying trust and openness and love and unconditional support.
posted by lazuli at 10:14 PM on August 17, 2017 [5 favorites]

As an result of being child of a person with a severe mental illness, I developed a wall against any kind of drama due to the embarrassment of having a parent that did things very much out of the norm, causing drama and general confusion all around. Having someone point out my coping skills as a negative emotion later in life caused me to withdraw even further. Oh crying is a bad thing? Then I won't cry or laugh or be happy either. A good a analogy is having someone point out that you have a very large zit on your nose. No shit Sherlock. Now I have the zit AND I'm embarrassed that you pointed it out.

As an educator, I have worked with kids in similar situations. For the most part, they just want you to be the normal person in their life, the one that causes no drama, is a safe place for them to be, just doing regular things. Five-year olds can definitely know that things are not right but also not want to talk about it. What you can do is acknowledge the things they do say. Kid: Mom says I don't take baths when I am here. You: Mom says you don't take baths when you are here. Non-judgemental but acknowledging what they have said. That will usually open the door for more conversation.

Yes, I know I am using the term normal very loosely in this context. In my case, not normal meant a parent that exhibited extremely bizarre behavior up until the day she died. So anyway, my normal filter is probably out of whack.
posted by tamitang at 10:59 PM on August 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm the adult daughter of a parent with mental illness - bipolar and schizophrenia, and mostly managed, but.

My mother had primary custody of me after my parents divorced, in part because my dad was apparently a trigger for her; I rarely saw my dad because he didn't want to set my mom off. And this was part of a very damaging pattern of behaviour from the people around me, all of whom loved my mom and wanted to not trigger a downward spiral... from when I was a child, I was always expected to adjust, to make concessions for my mother's behaviour, because she was sick. Well, I am/was a human being with emotions and needs too, you know! It didn't help that because I internalised things rather than act out, my family thought I was doing just fine. It took a breakdown in my early twenties and a butt-load of therapy for me to even begin to start coping, and I didn't begin to set active boundaries until my late twenties.

you're already doing a LOT better than my family just by asking this question, but. tl;dr: your daughter is a child and should be allowed to be one, rather than being obliged to put her mother's needs first all the time.
posted by Tamanna at 11:29 PM on August 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

My ex is mentally ill, and I didn't really acknowledge it till after we'd had our daughter, we divorced when she was three, mainly because I wanted to make sure she had a safe home - mine. It took several years before he had a diagnosis, and even then he never admitted it (I found out from his then-girlfriend). The law here gives even criminals joint custody, so my lawyer said there was no chance I'd get custody when he was still undiagnosed (and appeared normal to most people).
I decided early on that I would not ever say anything bad about her father to my daughter, and that I would focus on giving her skills for coping. Some of them have been mentioned above: avoid black and white thinking, accept that people are different and that the way we live in the different households are different. I also acknowledged that this would be tough for my daughter, even as it was the best I could do under the circumstances. As soon as she could, she would plan playdates and sleepovers on dad-nights, and she was very lucky that there was a family in her dad's street who understood the situation and helped tremendously by always having their door open for her, so she could find respite there when the crazy was too much. Still those first years were rough. It broke the first real relationship I found after the divorce, because my new love couldn't live with the circumstances.
When my daughter was 12 or 13, she reacted very strongly outwards, and I took her to a psychiatrist for help. This was a turning point in many ways. The doctor helped me help my daughter, but it was possible because my ex's condition had worsened and it was much easier at this point for me to explain my actions to our surroundings. One of the things the doctor suggested was that she and I share a hobby or regular sports activity - it became ponies and riding. With this we created a safe space where my daughter could be herself, and where her father had no access (he tried, but she had found empowerment through her pony skills and could push him away without drama). I got a lot of weird long mails, and at one point I was frightened because he complained to the authorities, but they just laughed him off. Eventually, finding new friends at the riding school made her feel better about herself and she demanded to change schools from the one were her father was on the board (!) to a very different school. And to cut a long story short, when she turned 18 it was as if a spell had lifted. Since then we have had many long talks about how she feels about her dad and she always calls me right away if she is somehow worried or anxious, because she knows she needs to take care of herself and ask for help after all that she has gone through. She loves her dad and cares for him, but she knows he is ill, and she also knows it is not her responsibility to heal him. She is a balanced and friendly young woman and does well in all aspects of life.
I still never initiate any negative talk about her father, and while I do confirm her judgement if she asks me directly, I mostly listen and guide.

For now, my advice would be for you to create a safe and stable home, to teach her how to deal soundly with her own and other people's emotions, to engage her in some regular activity, such as sports or dance or music, and to always speak respectfully of her mother in her presence. (But obviously never support her mother's gas lighting — there is good advice above for managing that).
Help her appear "normal" with other kids: she needs to be clean, with nice hair and clothes and have nice lunch boxes. She needs to have nice playdates at your house if possible, and her room needs to be nice and bright.
Maybe she needs to just relax and do nothing the first day after being with her mother for a while. Accept this, put no pressure on her (except normal house rules, such as eating with the family, getting up on time etc.)
I wouldn't suggest you bring her to a child psychiatrist now, unless you think something is very wrong. Among the reasons my daughter had so much gain from seeing the doctor was that she felt it was entirely her own choice to go there and she felt old enough to have a real conversation.
posted by mumimor at 1:36 AM on August 18, 2017 [6 favorites]

Maybe there was a thing I didn't write clearly enough, about waiting with professional help for her, if you can. I think a child in that situation needs to feel there are some, hopefully many aspects of life where they are personally in control and every one around them is acting predictably because the situation with the mentally ill parent is completely uncontrollable. Being taken to a doctor when you are not able to evaluate what that means or what the consequences are can feel overpowering and if your safe adults are doing it, it may well add to your general sense of loneliness and disempowerment. It can also give the child the feeling that she is also a patient.
posted by mumimor at 1:46 AM on August 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

+1 to what mumimor said about helping the kid look "normal" to other kids. Things like being on time to school, having nice clean and appropriate clothes and school supplies; having a nice, clean room for playdates, with good snacks available for hosting, etc.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:25 AM on August 18, 2017

I grew up with a mother who has Borderline Personality Disorder/Narcissism and a father who thinks she is a saint.

In my case, I was a terribly shy kid. I had an aunt who, although she had her own dysfunctions, was always kind and stable and even smiled at me. She never needed to do anything specific to make me feel better. Just by naturally modeling more functional behavior, and by talking with me without raging or crying or blaming me for anything, she created an environment in which I felt quite safe with her. I would have gladly left my parents to live with her if I could have.

My suggestion is simply to be yourselves so she can witness what a functioning relationship looks like, both between you both and with her. Eventually, when she feels safe enough, she'll reach out to you, likely in some small way. If you try too hard, she may resist and withdraw more. Kids are really smart that way.

I wish you luck, and grant you so many kudos for being sensitive to this child and wanting to help her.
posted by J. Tiberius at 11:49 AM on August 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

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