Parenting With Mental Illness: What It Means & How You Can Cope

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Parenting is tough.

Pshhh…Ok, let’s not sugar coat it … Parenting is HARD AS HELL!

But throw in parenting with a mental illness, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) as I have, and just making it through the day can feel like a major victory. Every. Single. Day.

I’ve invited a guest blogger, Jennifer, from the lifestyle blog Diffusing the Tension to talk with us about what it’s like to be a parent with a mental illness and give us some tips on how to cope. Thanks for joining us, Jennifer!

Parenting little ones is an emotional task, isn’t it?

There is the intense love that melts your heart with every hug and kiss. There is the anger you feel every time another child is mean to them. There is the annoyance of tantrums and crying fits. There is the laughter that fills the spaces in between. After all, they are pretty darn funny.

That is the average day in the life of most parents.

What if that parent is mentally ill? What if the complex emotions above also have to share headspace with ones like: low self-worth, anxiety, sadness, irritability, and hopelessness?

How would that parent cope?

A day in the life of parenting with a mental illness

They just won’t listen.

I’ve tried reasoning with them. (Even though I logically know it makes no sense to try to reason with a 3-year-old.)

I’ve tried loving the tantrum out of them. Come here, sweetie. It will be okay.

I’ve tried a stern voice. My mom voice.

Nothing is helping. They’re just lying on the ground, flailing around, their red face covered in tears.

All because I wouldn’t let them have another lollipop.

The crying turns to wailing which turns to screaming, and I just can’t take it anymore.

I feel it starting in the pit of my stomach. It’s almost like falling in love, that feeling of anxiety that signals another burst of irritability.

I start to feel a little lightheaded. Not enough to pass out, but just enough to make me feel like I had done a couple of shots of vodka.

Then, it happens. Before I can even process how I’m feeling. That’s how quickly this series of emotions starts and stops, in the span of seconds.

Just get off the ground and stop crying, already!!

There, I yelled.

They stop crying because of the lollipop and now they are crying because of me. They feared me in those few seconds, and after the lightheaded feeling passes, I’m filled with shame and worthlessness.

Why do I let this happen?

woman with hand on forehead in despair

Hope on the horizon

Parenting with mental illness is a struggle. It is a daily fight to “seem normal,” to fight impulses, and to overcompensate when you’re feeling stable.

Surprisingly, there is some good news.

Parents with mood disorders actually have a few profound advantages over emotionally normal parents.

  • Oftentimes, we feel things more deeply. While this can be a burden when those feelings are negative ones, the opposite is also true. We are capable of the most intense joy when we experience loving moments with our children.
  • We are used to being marginalized. For this reason, we are sometimes better equipped to raise empathetic children. We know what it’s like to be judged for something that we didn’t choose. It gives us the perfect lens with which to view others’ problem, and helps us better teach our children about kindness.
  • We are deeply flawed. I believe this shows our children our humanity in a very real way. It shows them that if they decide to become parents one day, there is no requirement of perfection. It shows them that all that’s required is trying your best.

Despite these reasons, while being mentally ill actually comes with some benefits as parents, many people seek skills they can use to mitigate the symptoms of their illness. And that is totally fine! We all want to feel in control over our illness and give our children the best quality of life possible.

Tips on how to cope with the stress of parenting with a mental illness

Here are some great tips for how you, the mentally ill parent, can cope with the stress that comes with parenting children of any age.

Parenting is hard. But parenting with a mental illness comes with even more difficulties.  Here's how to cope as a parent with mood disorder. #mentalhealth #mentalillness

1.) Understand what triggers you

This one is really crucial. You have to have the presence of mind to identify the things that make you “snap.” This way, when you see the potential for the trigger, you can give yourself an inner pep talk and help your brain visualize a more positive outcome.

2.) Get a good night’s sleep

I realize this is easier said than done. My youngest is almost 2.5 and she still sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night.

It’s hell on any person’s brain but especially one that struggles to manufacture the right chemicals.

Whatever you have to do to get that good night’s sleep. More frequent overnights at Grandma’s. Tag-teaming with your partner. Hiring a sitter once a week. You deserve, and need, good, quality rest.  

Read: Bedtime Routine For Adults To Help You Quickly Fall Asleep

3.) Exercise

I can’t stress the benefits of exercise enough. It helps your body and your mind work better, both of which are victims when you’re depressed or anxious.

Try to work in 30 minutes of cardio 2-3 days a week to start. The more frequently you can exercise the better. 30 minutes daily is ideal, but start slow until it becomes a habit.

And make sure to do something you enjoy. Not only will you get that rush of endorphins from the exercise itself, but you’ll feel satisfaction at having done something really fun.

4.) Get out of the house

As parents, especially with little ones, it can be hard to go out for regular nights out with friends. Nights of bar hopping are long gone.

Still, try to make it a priority to have a regular time for you away from the stresses you feel at home. Whether it’s a monthly spa day with your best friend, or even just weekly solo grocery shopping, this time is critical for our brain’s recovery.

5.) Personal development

There are a lot of great resources available for people who are struggling. I definitely recommend picking up a book or two (or finding a podcast) geared toward improving your mindset.

Amazon Prime is a godsend on days when you want to purchase something but find it hard to leave the house. Just search for “personal development books” and endless options will come up.

6.) Talk about it

Open up about your illness.

First of all, talk to your kids about it. You don’t have to share all the sordid details about the ways your illness affects you, but explain the basics. For example, Sometimes I feel a little sad, and I’m not sure why. But what I want you to always remember is, it’s not your fault.

Tailor it to your child’s age and level of understanding. Children have such a high capacity for acceptance, you will probably be surprised at how they react.

Second of all, talk about it in general. Share your story with others. It can be hard at first, but there is an unimaginable release that comes with sharing your struggles, and a validation that comes with people saying they go through the same things.

In Post Facebook Anxiety Group Banner

7.) Have a support system

Make sure you have help. We can’t do this alone.

Even parents without mood disorders need occasional help. Add something like depression on top of that, and we often need a lot of help managing obligations that are a normal part of life.

It really does take a village. So whatever form yours comes in, tap into it whenever you feel yourself spiraling into a mood episode.

Read: 10 Natural Remedies For Anxiety +6 Ways To Stop An Anxiety/Panic Attack

8.) Give yourself grace

Know that bad days will happen.

We are going to have periods where we do well, and then periods where we will backslide into a depressive or irritable phase. If that happens, try not to react by feeling dejected, like you’re the world’s biggest screw-up. Instead, pat yourself on the back for being a fighter. Hoist your chin up in the air, and start fresh from that moment on.

Life is a series of moments, and many times, that is how we have to live it.

neon "and breathe" sign

A new normal

They just won’t listen. I’ve tried reasoning with them. (Even though I logically know it makes no sense to try to reason with a 3-year-old.)

I’ve tried loving the tantrum out of them. Come here, sweetie. It will be okay.

I’ve tried a stern voice. My mom voice.

Nothing is helping. They’re just lying on the ground, flailing around, their red face covered in tears.

All because I wouldn’t let them have another lollipop.

The crying turns to wailing which turns to screaming, and I know what’s coming. This is the sort of thing that normally sends me over the edge. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and count backward from 10.

10… 9… 8… 7… 6… 5… 4… 3… 2… 1…

Deep breath.

I open my eyes, and the screaming has stopped. They are still crying, but it’s almost as if my attempts to calm myself have trickled over onto them. I bend down, and wipe the tears from their eyes. Even though I’m frustrated, I force myself to ask, “Do you feel better now?” I know I do.

I’m so grateful I let that happen.

When you hold your baby in your arms the first time, and you think of all the things you can say and do to influence him, it’s a tremendous responsibility. What you do with him can influence not only him, but everyone he meets and not for a day or a month or a year but for time and eternity. — Rose Kennedy

Portrait of Jennifer From

About the author: Jennifer Van Haitsma is the lifestyle blogger behind Diffusing the Tension. She writes about mental illness, parenting, and lots of other things in between. She is a mom of 2 kiddos, bipolar, and married to her love of 14 years. She is a TV fanatic, bookworm, and workout nut in her spare time.

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