Caring for Mentally Ill Children Can Test Parents' Relationship

November 2, 2010 Angela McClanahan

As any married (or divorced) person will attest, marriage is hard work. Adding a child to the mix multiplies the hard work exponentially. Add a child with a psychiatric illness - let the rollercoaster ride begin.marriage1

We're all familiar with the couple who, experiencing marital issues, decided to have a baby. Chances are pretty good that couple is no longer married. Children take the quality of an existing marriage and magnify it--a strong marriage will grow stronger; a troubled marriage, more troubled.

Children with psychiatric illness create the same marital stressors as children with other ailments. However, the stigma of mental illness can bring additional stress to an already-maxed out marriage. Blame may be placed for the perceived cause of the child’s condition (“there aren’t any crazy people on my side of the family!”). Disagreements over mental health treatment are common (“my kid’s not taking Ritalin!”), as well as disagreements over how to handle the child from day-to-day (“if you weren’t such a pushover, he’d straighten up!”) . Time demands (taking time off work for appointments) and the high cost of treatment for a mental health problem also contribute to marital stress.

Divorce Issues and Our Child with Bipolar Disorder and ADHD

Bob's father and I were not married, and our already unhealthy relationship became even worse when Bob’s problems emerged. I do not fault Bob’s condition for the relationship’s demise, nor am I suggesting any child is responsible for the outcome of their parents’ marriage. Bob's problems only illuminated the white elephant that followed us into every room. I left not long after Bob's second birthday, and it wasn't soon enough.

What followed was four long years of drama in and out of the courtroom, peppered with trying to manage Bob while being met with non-stop opposition from his other parent.

That's the Reader's Digest version, anyway.

Today, while things have calmed down considerably, it's not a perfect situation. I was able to obtain sole legal custody of Bob, thereby being the sole decision-maker in terms of his medical (and psychiatric) care. Unfortunately, I can no more force Bob's father to comply with his bipolar medication regimen than I can prove whether or not he hasn't. (Even when I knew Bob wasn't getting his medications at his father's house, our state does not consider failure to provide psychotropic medication "medical neglect.") All I can really do is try to stay on the high road and hope for the best. marriage2

Obviously Bob's condition would be much easier to manage and monitor with a second parent who was on the same page in terms of Bob's diagnosis. I worry about what effect this constant conflict of opinions will have on Bob's compliance when he grows older and more in control of his medication regimen. Fortunately, Bob's stepfather is on the same page--even though I'm making the decisions, it's nice to finally have someone in my corner backing me up.

Caring for a child with psychiatric issues demands the support of others. If they're lucky, some parents can find that support in each other.

APA Reference
McClanahan, A. (2010, November 2). Caring for Mentally Ill Children Can Test Parents' Relationship, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, April 19 from

Author: Angela McClanahan

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