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Schizophrenia and Parenting: Step In or Let Go?

I have an adult child with schizophrenia. Parenting is about the precarious balance between stepping in to help - especially where mental illness is concerned.

A message comes to me via social media, along with an invitation to connect. It simply says, “My 27 year old child has schizophrenia, but will not get treatment.” Oh boy, can I relate to that. Unfortunately, this is a major dilemma facing all of us who deal with mental illness in our families.

Parenting is always about the precarious balance between stepping in to help, and letting go to allow learning from experience. From a child’s first steps to his or her first relationship, car,  job, apartment…when to give advice? When to help? When to step back and watch them sink or swim?

For the parents of a child without a physical or mental illness, this process is difficult enough; for those who are dealing with illness in our children, it’s that much harder. The consequences of stepping aside, of letting go, could be disastrous: poverty, hospitalization, an arrest, flight, or even – tragically – suicide.

Schizophrenia and Freedom Without Parents

Back when a hug was all it took...

My own son, Ben, 29, has just moved from seven years in a group home (24 hour staffing) to his own apartment. There is some support – a caseworker, medication supervision – but also a new lack of structure. No required group meetings. No chores scheduled. No one – except the roaches – to know if he washed the dishes or not.

Am I excited for him? Of course. Am I concerned? You bet I am. Is there much I can do? Only some things. He could crash, he could cheek his meds, he could oversleep and miss an appointment, he could become lonely and isolated. But if I call to see how he is, he sees right through me. “Mom, I’m fine. I’ll get to work on time. Of course I’ m taking my meds. I’m fine in the apartment all alone on my day off. Yes, I”ll unpack  soon.”

So I let him live. Alone. And I watch from the wings, ready to alert his caseworkers if I see any warning signs. Three days ago I saw the unmistakable (to me) signs that Ben had missed a day of meds – so I sounded the alarm to all new staff members who donot know his tricks yet. And now he’s okay again – so far.

Now I only see him on family occasions, or  on rainy days when he can’t take his bike to work. Could he wind up in the hospital again if I am not there to witness symptoms? Yes, of course. And I hate that. But we have only so much control.

Parenting My Adult Son with Schizophrenia

As always, we do what we can and then hope for the best. Keep an eye out for trouble, and our hearts in a place of faith in Ben and his ability to make the adjustments to this new life.  Scary? Oh yes. We do the best we can for our loved ones -secretly or openly – and then sometimes all that’s left is to take care of ourselves and the rest of our family.

My mantra at these times? “Whatever happens, we will handle it somehow.”

I don’t always know how, but I know that we’ve managed before, and will again. And I ask for help when I need it.

270 thoughts on “Schizophrenia and Parenting: Step In or Let Go?”

  1. My 42 year old son is diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. He is homeless and lives in the Newark, NJ train station apparently. Recently I called around and got him into a wonderful treatment program and got a case manager assigned to him. She got him him ID, SSDI, Medicaid, etc. He dresses bizarrely, covering his mouth, wearing tons of clothes, sunglasses, wool hats, or bandanna. We finally got him to see a shrink for “talk therapy” which I think he is still doing but refuses to get on meds. He had a family, son, a place to live, and a job. This is just a summary of his problems. Just when I thought we were having a breakthrough, the program he was in kicked him out because he refused to do anything to help himself. He was offered multiple housing vouchers and refused them. His father and I are divorced but united in his care, however, how can you help someone who refuses to help himself. He is rapidly deteriorating and I fear for his life. I pray and pray every day. Before this program, we were sending him money and that is when I found this amazing program. Now if he wants to ever reenter the program, he will be at the bottom of the list. It is a continuous nightmare. We fought to get permission to even speak to his case manager because of HIPAA. He is well aware that he needs to sign a release form. We have had sporadic updates due to me bribing him with money and it worked, but now he is out there again and I do not know what he is doing until I hear from him.

    1. This can be the toughest part of some mental illnesses! That lack of understand one’s own illness is pretty common with schizophrenia, and it can make it hard for someone to accept help offered to them. As an adult, your son can make these choices, and you unfortunately can’t force him to do otherwise. I’d suggest speaking with your local NAMI chapter (national alliance on mental illness) about resources are available to you in NJ. Interventions range from calling 911 if needed to guardianship or civil commitment, and those all vary based on states and counties. Ultimately, the only thing you have full control over is your own health and well-being I hope you can find support groups through NAMI or elsewhere. They exist for parents of children with schizophrenia and may help you cope with this super tough situation.

    2. I am dealing with something very similar with a 28 y/o son. He’s home but he won’t go to treatment or take psych meds and he’s not on SSI because he doesn’t think he has a problem so as a single mother I am not able to pay my taxes due to having to support him. It’s wearing on me big time. Right now he’s in a semi-manic state as he’s coming in and out of his room with delusional ideas that I set out to ruin his life and am using him for some sort of financial gain. He’s not even supposed to be living here with me. I’m about to call 911 and lie to them and say that he said that he’s going to kill himself. They won’t admit him if he’s just completely psycho and they see him here with mom. And a friend who works at a psych hospital said that the process of conservatorship starts with a 5150 or several 5150s. Once they are in the system you can start the process. Problem is, getting him in the system. Now he’s asking me to just give him a ride back to Santa Cruz where he’ll end up back on drugs. He takes suboxon and he’s been clean almost six months but at a high price on both of us. I’d say to you that maybe call 911 and have him admitted and stabilized for a few days and then start the process of conservatorship so that you can have more control but I also hear it’s not an easy process.

  2. After seven years our son33 lied about taking his meds physically harmed himself to be put in hospital few times plus mental wards has a Depot needle now last two months aggro listless and scary

  3. I am so happy I found this site. I have been reading so much about schiz issues and none ever mentioned violence. I too have a son that we have been dealing with for 7 years now. Only in the last 3 years hes gotten progressively worse. He is sensitive to sounds such as Cars driving by with broken mufflers, trash pick up trucks, motorcycles ect…He literally runs outside to start a war and chases these vehicles on foot or by car. I fear for him as he may stop the wrong car and get shot or similar. He has been lately yelling the “F” word in our house and slamming doors to the point of shaking the house. I am terrified of him I was at the brink of suicide because I didn’t want to live with it anymore. We rent and didn’t want to get the landlord involved in evicting him but my husband saw that I was barely living anymore and talked the to our landlord to get him evicted. That night the police showed up and had him pink slipped to Psych hospital which only kept him 8 days and released him while there we moved everything in to storage and told him he was evicted. He is now on the streets living in his car, of course now I am worried about him getting himself killed as he approaches anyone. Of course as soon as he got released he refused to take his meds. I don’t know what to do anymore. I no longer want him here at our house and it has been tough for me thinking about him out on the streets. I sometimes want to give in but when I talk to him and try to encourage him to take the meds he just refuses and says hell take care of it naturally with god. He thinks everyone is out to get him and everyone does not deserve to live on this earth. It’s crazy he was verbally abusing us and we were literally walking on pins and needles in our home as every sound he heard triggered him. I can’t talk to him at all about meds. He has been in a psych ward 3 times now. Untill he admits he will not heal. The other issue is he has read all about the side effects of the drug and refuses them because of that.

      1. Hi Lei, my 26 year old daughter suffers with the same symptoms. I’m trying to hang in there but it’s tough. Can’t have a life with her constant disruptions. I hope we both can find some answers. God bless.

  4. My 11 year old daughter just got diagnosed from everything I have read this is rare for it to present this young. Her father and myself are not together and he has just re-entered her life last year. He refuses to believe and says that the test are wrong. He does not want me putting her on any kind of medication and is now saying he feels it best she come live with him. I want to help my daughter and see her get better yet feel so lost and confused especially with her so young.

    1. Hi Stephanie,
      This is Susan Traugh, another author at HealthyPlace.com. I’m so sorry to hear that you are having such problems, but am excited for you that your daughter’s condition was found so soon and that you can begin getting her the help that can vastly improve her life. It is understandable that both your ex is dealing with denial–this can feel like a devastating diagnosis. But research shows that the sooner you start addressing your daughter’s problems, the better the outcome. Start by educating yourself as much as you can, and passing that information on to your ex so that he can do the same. A good introductory article on HealthyPlace.com is https://www.healthyplace.com/thought-disorders/schizophrenia-children/schizophrenia-in-children-symptoms-causes-treatments/. Also, check out the “Resources” page on this site. HealthyPlace has compiled a professional and reliable set of resources that can really be a jumping board into understanding your daughter’s illness. Next, I recommend that you contact your local NAMI branch. (National Association for Mental Illness.) They have many programs for families to help educate and support them in this journey. Their “Family-to-Family” program is a 12-week program to teach families about their child’s mental illness and tools to work with their loved ones and find professional help. It is well worth your time. Finally, if he can, I would suggest that you invite your husband to meet with your daughter’s psychiatrist with you and learn more about why he came to the diagnosis that he did. Stephanie, there is support out there for you. Not knowing what comes next is probably the scariest part of this journey. But, once you educate yourself and find a support system, it does get easier and less overwhelming. I wish you the best on your journey and feel free to check in when you need to.

    2. Sorry to hear about that. Eleven years old IS a rare age to be diagnosed, so it can hard for anyone to grapple with. Hopefully she has a support system around her that can also support you. If she doesn’t have them already, a family therapist may be helpful to manage her illness but also help you as parents figure it out. Regardless of her diagnosis, if she’s having behaviors at school, the social worker can provide assistance. I imagine she has an IEP, too, and that can help both you and her dad measure what’s going on and what helps her when she’s having difficulties at school. Her father can certainly get a second opinion. There’s nothing wrong with healthy skepticism, and a second opinion may help him better come to terms with it if those tests still indicate schizophrenia. Meanwhile, try your local NAMI chapter (National Alliance on Mental Illness). Their whole purpose is to support families and provide education and resources. Best wishes to you and your family.

  5. My heart goes out to all family members trying to help the adult paranoid schizophrenic. My 38 yr. old son was diagnosed about 12 years ago, received SSI and subsidized housing, and managed alright living by himself while he was taking his anti-psychotic medications. But as typically happens, he stopped taking them when he decided that he had been mis-diagnosed; he was not schizophrenic – he was psychic. He has hurt himself physically at least four times, permanently disabling his left hand, broken his leg while police pulled him to safety on a roof, and was found with no discernible pulse after slitting his wrists and swallowing all his anti-anxiety meds. His paranoia became progressively worse and in the last few years he gradually “fired” everyone involved in his treatment or supervision. He felt he could trust no one and was in danger in his own county, so began taking one-way trips, running through his money and getting himself stranded away from his home state (Calif.). We live in another state, but received hundreds of calls and messages a month from him in the last year. We have wanted desperately to get a conservatorship hearing initiated so that he could be forced to take his medications, but learned that family members (the ones who care the most) are not allowed to initiate the process (at least in California.) Calling his past mental health care workers with our concerns, we found plenty of sympathy and understanding, along with explanations of how difficult it was to accomplish a conservatorship if the patient is able to articulate intelligently to any degree. Everyone seemed to be waiting for things to get “bad” enough for someone else to be motivated to do the work necessary to make it happen. Finally, my son found his own solution to his problems. After his most recent impulsive excursion across the country just before this last Christmas, we tried to help him make his way back home and got him as far as Las Vegas two weeks ago. Then and there, he and his voices apparently decided it was enough, and he jumped 102 ft. from the top floor of an airport parking garage to his death. Though my heart is breaking, I realize this is just one more of the many tragic stories which demonstrate the state’s concern with mentally ill patient “rights” over their needs – to such an extreme that family cannot even initiate legal intervention in their behalf.

    1. I am so sorry for your loss and all of the suffering associated with mental illness. My son also is affected
      God help them and us through this walk on earth. God is merciful and full of kindness for those who are lost.

    2. I really feel for you Terri. It is the cruelest illness for everyone who lives with it. My thoughts are with you.

    3. I’m so sorry to hear about your son. I think you should publish this story to make awareness that the parents are the experts on their own children and should be taken seriously. Unfortunately, California advocates so much for the rights of individuals that they do not see those who are clearly gravely disabled. I have an issue with my 28 y/o son who’s recently decompensated. I was about to kick him out again as I’m drowning here. Now, after reading these tragic stories, I’m having second thoughts.

    4. I have just read this and it is exactly the situation I am in. I am so sorry that your son killed himself. Mine is ‘psychic’, now taking hard drugs and likely to end it all soon. He has cut off all contact right now. Noone has not gone through this has any idea of the horror and how powerless we, the parents are.

    5. Terry Jensen,…what can i possibly say to you. I’m so so sorry. I can not fathom. My son now lives in a locked skilled nursing facility. He is 33 and his diagnosis is schizoaffective. He lives independently for almost 10 years, off and on. I am his guardian, since 2008 and he resents me for it. I have tried all I know to help. But regardless in the end it is still their life, choices, path even illness. It is the worse thing on the planet. It is an evil curse that takes your child or loved one and steals their life, dreams. I can’t imagine your pain dear lady. God bless you and your family and I pray you have healing and peace

  6. My Son is 25 and has been homeless for 8 months slowly we have been making steps towards treatment. He told me he was ready to see a doctor take meds or whatever he needed to do. We signed up for ssi he agreed to an evaluation was honest about his symptoms and now he refuses the meds. I live out of state and have been financially physically drained putting him up in hotels because finding housing is difficult with his behaviors he was kicked out of his last place after attacking a neighbor. I feel like I have brought him to the water but can’t make him drink. No matter how much I do and progress we make, i feel like I should be doing more. We have offered him to live with us if he gets on meds which has to be a caveat due to his aggression and other behaviors. When do we let go?

    1. Oh, Lisa, isn’t that the million dollar question? I’m so sorry to hear how difficult things are with your son right now. I went through a period where my daughter, too, was homeless, violent and resistant to therapy/meds. It is every parent’s nightmare. While we, as parents, always want to do more and want to believe we can “fix” whatever is wrong in our children’s lives, it sounds to me like you are doing all you can. Unfortunately, we can’t get our kids the help they need until they are willing to step up and accept it. I think that may be the hardest part of this–knowing you’re standing there with a life-preserver while you child thrashes around in the water and refuses to reach for it. Have you considered contacting NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) to see if they have family meetings or a support group? It might help to be able to talk to other parents sharing your difficult journey. HealthyPlace.com has links to NAMI on the Resource page. For me, I needed to change my words when my daughter was most at risk. Instead of saying I “let go” (because do we ever really?) I told myself I was “stepping back” so I could be strong and ready when she came home. I consistently offered the help but also insisted she take her meds so she wasn’t violent to other family members. But, I came to realize that I could not force her to want to get well…only wait, and hope, and pray that she would find her way. You are doing all you can do. You are doing everything right. I hope you can find solace and strength in that knowledge. And I wish you the best for your son, and your family.

  7. My son is schitzophrinic , and is 22 years old. He just bought a plane ticket to Alaska, and has not been on meds for more than a month. How can I stop him?

    1. Hi, John! I’m sorry to hear this is happening. It’s scary as a parent to watch it, especially as there’s not a lot we CAN do when someone is legally an adult. My only thought would be to find out where he’s going in Alaska and see if they have mobile crisis services there. They’ve been known to meet people at airports to assess if they’re safe. You could try to provide crisis info to your son, too, so he could reach out for help when needed. Maybe you can google local psychiatrist to see if he’s willing to see one. As long as he’s willing to tell you where exactly he is, that gives you a tool for where to send help when he needs it.

  8. We need a mental health change my 31 year old daughter has bipolar disorder and last year they told her she’s schizophrenia but don’t except the schizophrenia and refuse the meds in the past 2yrs she’s been admitted in the hospital like 10 times and she will continue to she throws everything food detergents etc. And repeats buying cause she says they poison, staff poison her stuff in her apt she wipe out her apt she’s almost in debt she calls me every to wks or more to see if I could put money in her account she stay broke from her ssi like a gambleler but am disabled to and I get ssi to she wants my money constantly I pay her phone so I could hear her voice but when I can’t help her am a bad mother to her that I don’t care not realizing what she’s doing she’s not managing her money well am afraid she loses her supporting housing she’s out of control and right now she’s admitted again I don’t understand why if she’s in danger and don’t except her schizophrenia and refuse meds why they don’t put her in a long term residential before she hurts some one or somebody will kill her cause she’s very aggressive what about my quality of life am disabled to am desperate can some help me she’s has the ACT TEAM and the AOT somebody is not doing there freakin job.

    1. Can you tell me a little more about the services that your daughter is getting and where I can find them please. What is AOT? I need to find services for my daughter urgently.

    2. Omg, it’s like I just wrote this post about my daughter. She does the same things and has been just admitted to the hospital again, the 4th time this week. I’m so stressed out dealing with all this. You must feel the same.

      1. All too familiar. There is a tremendous lack of understanding the needs of the mentally ill in our country, and the lack of available facilities for this population puts everyone at risk. There is no place to get support when they refuse their meds and spin out on family and the public. My 30 yo daughter just upended her current living situation and was admitted to psyche. They medicate, give her a clinic appt. and turn her back out to the streets. There is no safe place for them to be, and no family willing to house severely ill people due to destructive risks. It is unconscionable how we care for our mentally ill under the guise of ‘protecting their rights as an adult’. It is no different than allowing a dementia patient to make sound decisions for their care. She has been kicked out of every place she has lived, or run away to an alternate that didn’t pan out and wound up in the streets, abused, raped, robbed, left for dead. I try to let go, and then get the call in the middle of the night and the cycle starts over. Authorities reach out for your help when the person is on the edge or in trouble, wanting you to somehow fix it, but they don’t give you the resources to do anything and you can’t take charge without alot of money, attorneys and court costs to prove they are incompetent. It is a tiresome, vicious cycle.

      2. YES..my 21 yr old son has been in and out of jail and hospital…too many times to keep count and I’m losing my mind trying to figure out how I can help him…he too is aggressive and won’t take meds but is receiving a monthly shot

  9. I have been reading several books about this problem: no one cares about crazy people, by ron powers; out of the shadows by torey fuller; i’m not sick, I don’t need help by Xavier Amador. also there’s a movie : healing voices but I haven’t seen it yet. there’s a lot of good books; the day the voices stopped by ken steele… he is an excellent writer about what it was like in the 1950s going in and out of psyche hospitals… he writes about self… he writes about several gay experiences though and that might upset some but that was his story.

  10. I have a 33 year old Granddaughter that is schizophrenic and bi-polar, and is exactly like how Julie and Ruby describes their. I’m worried for my daughter and great grandson with her being this way. It seems like no one cares. She’s been put into the psyche ward at the hospital several times but they will only keep them for 3 days, and most of the time she walks out before time is up because she wants a cigarette and can’t smoke at the hospital. Once or twice a month she finds meth and drinks, then she sees snakes all over herself. She hears voices constantly. She is so disruptive to my daughter’s household they don’t get any sleep because she keeps them all up all night. She has threatened my daughter and has told her: “You don’t know how much I want to kill you”. Cops and ambulance has been there so so many times. It seems as if they just don’t care. When the cops get there she turns on a switch in her head and lies to them saying everything is fine, don’t know what the fuss is” and so they just tell her to go back to her room and they leave. She refuses to admit she needs help, she takes meds for awhile then goes off of them, she doesn’t take them long enough to see if they’ll even help.
    My daughter’s health isn’t good either, her blood pressure is so high I’m afraid for her having to deal with her daughter on a daily basis. My granddaughter needs to be in a long-term, in-house psychiatric facility, but they have no money. Granddaughter and daughter’s boyfriend each get SSI and my daughter has been fighting for 10 years trying to get hers. So if they lose granddaughters income, they’ll be on the street. I don’t know where to turn. But we have got to get her out of that household before she harms herself or my daughter or her son. Can my daughter to to court and have her declared incompetent and sent to the state mental hospital?

      1. I’m giving over to Jesus! Let’s step out of the way and let God do His miraculous thing. It’s the only option at this point. Let go and let God!

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