Childhood mental disorders are not always the parents’ fault. When I graduated from college, my mother dragged me to see a Christian psychiatrist who she was convinced could fix me. She asked the psychiatrist what caused my borderline personality disorder (BPD). The psychiatrist looked her in the eye and explained that BPD is caused by poor parenting. That is not always the case, and we as a society need to change our attitude that childhood mental disorders and illnesses are somehow the parents’ fault.
What Causes Childhood Mental Disorders and Mental Illness?
There are two theories about what causes mental illness in science, and neither one has to do with the nature vs. nurture debate. One theory is that mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance, and is treated with medication that corrects the chemical imbalance. There is some physical evidence of this. The other is that mental illness is genetic, which is why treatment professionals always ask about a family history. Neither of these theories blames the parents (Blaming Parents for Mental Illness).
While nurture can play a vital role in determining one’s mental health, the role of nature should not be overlooked. All parts of the body get sick with minimal blame on the parents, so why is the brain any different? When someone who is otherwise healthy develops a heart condition, we don’t blame the parents–we focus on fixing the problem so the person can lead a normal life. Environmental factors such as diet and exercise are just as crucial as genetic predisposition and physical makeup. Mental illness is no different–rather than searching for someone to blame, we must focus on helping the person recover.
Childhood Mental Disorder Stigma Affects Parents
My parents went through a wide range of emotions during the years leading up to my diagnosis. First, it was a family secret, but soon I could no longer hide my symptoms. Then, the drama began. My parents were in denial for years, largely because people believed (or my parents thought people believed) that my mental health problems were somehow their fault (Stigma of Being Branded Bad Parents). This meant I frequently didn’t get treatment, because they were good parents, so what problem existed? When I did get treatment, it usually lasted until the treatment professional started addressing home life–then it abruptly quit. This continued until I was in college, when I finally found a medication that worked and was stable enough to learn how to live with my illness.
I will admit that during this time the relationship with my parents was strained at best. I blamed them for my mental illness because the treatment professionals saw no reason other than poor parenting for me to have a mental illness. It was only after my parents got involved in the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Family-to-Family classes that they began to understand that it wasn’t anything they did, it was just the way my brain worked. Once they accepted this, they could accept the fact I had a mental illness. Once that happened, our relationship improved tremendously.
I’m not saying this is always the case. There are indeed incidents where the parents are to blame, like posttraumatic stress disorder resulting from child abuse. But these incidents are the exception, not the rule. More often than not, parents are trying the best they can do to fight an invisible enemy with people yelling at them for their lack of sight. It’s time to stop assuming the parents are at fault.
Blaming the Parents Affects the Child with a Mental Disorder
Blaming my mental illness on my parents did nothing but hurt me. First, it strained the relationship I had with my parents, because we argued frequently over who was to blame. Then, I was blamed for my illness because “You haven’t forgiven your parents.” I needed help learning to live with my symptoms, not a scapegoat. Blaming my parents accomplished nothing and often slowed my recovery because I was chasing a diversion and not looking at the real issues.
Parents who have a child in therapy often encounter stigma–they are then forced to decide just how much information to share about their child. They are forced to decide if they just accept the accusation of being bad parents or if they talk about their child’s struggles and risk alienating their child further. Just because the child is grown does not stop the blame game other people play. A line is always there, and when crossed, it changes the way people treat the child. So many parents accept the blame rather than risk making life worse for their child.
Blaming the parents, even when they are at fault, frequently accomplishes nothing. It’s time to take a science-based medical approach to mental illness and stop assuming the parents are at fault.