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Setting Boundaries with an Adult Child with a Mental Illness

January 14, 2020

Setting boundaries with an adult child
who has a mental illness. You know more and more today, I am hearing stories from
parents who have a child who is really struggling with some type of mental
illness: bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and an anxiety
disorder, PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, ADHD, and maybe even
schizophrenia or a borderline personality disorder and I’m having
these parents come to me and saying. “Help, you know what are my boundaries? How do I
hold an adult child accountable when that adult child also struggles with a
mental illness? It isn’t just the acting out; it isn’t just the drug use or the
alcohol use or the irresponsible decisions, it’s the underlying mental
illness that might be contributing to those things. Statistics tell us that
people that have mental illnesses use substances in order to kind of mitigate
the mood swings or the highs or the lows or the feelings that they have that come
along with these mental illnesses. When you’re anxious, drinking to calm your
anxiety down kind of makes sense.If your medication isn’t doing it, if you’re
depressed, taking something that makes you feel less down and less sad kind of
makes sense or if you’re in a lot of pain, taking substances that just kind of
numb you and take you out makes sense too. So the statistics show that people
that have mental illnesses are really at high risk of also using substances, even
ADHD because of the compulsivity and the impulsivity, you have a high use of
substances. So how do you, how do you make these difficult discernments and it truly
is a discernment. It’s taking all of the facts, all of the factors and looking at
them and coming out with a best solution or best option and it isn’t going to be
treating that child like you would treat a child who has no mental
illness at all. Now, there is always the question what came first. Was it the drug
use or the alcohol use that caused a depression, that caused the anxiety? Well,
certainly those things do contribute to it, do sometimes make it worse. Sometimes
you might not even be able to figure out what came first. So all in all, you’re
gonna take both into consideration when somebody has a problem like a mental
illness. You’re going to not excuse that person for not dealing with it and
you’re not going to excuse that person for not doing what he or she could do
and you’re not going to say, “Oh well, they have no choice, no hope or no
possibilities. You’re going to hold them accountable for what they are capable of
and you’re going to hold them accountable for the choices that they do
make ,but there’s going to be a little bit of padding of grace in there and
maybe a little bit less harshness when you have somebody struggling with a
mental illness. So here are four questions that will enable you to figure
out whether or not you should jump in and help or not help or let that person
bear consequences. First question: Is you’re helping necessary? You know, we can
hover even over our adult children, especially those that are you know
mentally ill and act like we have to do everything for them and see them as
completely helpless. It’s not good for them. It is good for us to expect that
child to do everything possible and then a little more, not to do the reverse
which is the excuse of oh that child can’t do anything. That will not help him
or her in the long run. So you need to really assess: Do I have to do this or
can this kid be pushed a little bit to kind of do this on his own or pushed a
little bit to kind of step out and risk and then there are certain things that
you absolutely want that child to do on their own. Getting a child into recovery
for mental illness or substance abuse when that child has no desire to go at
all means that you will most likely have an outcome to where it will not
work. You want to help that child figure out what he or she needs to do on their
own so it will be at least coming from them. Doesn’t mean that there’s not a
time when you have to intervene because things are out of control and dangerous
and you know put somebody into the hospital for a few days or something but
you want them that you want to ask yourself:Is my helping necessary?The
next thing is is my helping encouraging? We can do two things with their helping.
We can encourage somebody to rise up and do more or we can discourage the person
and send in them in the opposite direction. Okay, so is it encouraging if
you go find your child a job or drive the child to the job, set it up with the
person, that no matter how that your child performs on that job that the
child keeps the job? That is not encouraging, that’s discouraging. The
message that you’re sending is you’re incompetent; you’re not capable of
getting a job; you’re not capable of keeping a job; and you’re not capable of
doing what you need to do that. Does not help someone. You want to encourage that
person to see hope, encourage that person to move forward and do something that’s
beneficial and positive that he will feel good about. You want that child to
become as much as possible ,to do what will kind of push that child forward
without you doing everything for them. The next one is is you’re helping
healthy?: And this goes two ways: Is it healthy for you? Actually can go more
than two ways: Is it healthy for you? Is it healthy for the child and is it healthy
for your other relationships? For instance, let’s say that this is your
child and you are remarried and your spouse has different opinions and if you
do everything for this adult child with this mental illness and substance
addiction and you put that child in your home regardless of what your new spouse
says and you continually do everything for that child. Excuse that child, excuse
that child’s behavior, even mistreatment of your new
spouse. You have to ask yourself, is this healthy? Is this healthy for my marriage?
Is this healthy for me? Am i doing something that’s good for me or is this
fun? Healthy because sometimes we, especially as mothers or you know I’m
not shouldn’t exclude fathers, when we love our child and we see our child
spiraling out of control and we become fearful about things that could really
happen that could be really bad, then we panic and we jump in and we try
to fix again and again and again. Try to argue, try to explain, try to set things
up and there’s a point where that becomes very unhealthy and we have to
learn how to step back. And then as you’re healthy, is you’re helping working?
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and
expecting different results. So are you doing the same thing, getting the same
outcome or are you trying something different?There’s nothing wrong with
trying to see what outcome you get. So look at what you’re doing and saying: Is
this working? Is this pushing my child towards something healthier? Is this is
this helping that child to be accountable? Is that helping that child
to be responsible? Is that sending the message to this child that you’re
capable of taking care of yourself, you’re capable of making wise choices,
you just need to do them? Is it giving that child parameters in which, for
instance, you don’t give a drug addict or somebody who abuses alcohol or pills
cash because that person is likely to go spend it. But if you’ve got a child who’s
mentally ill who needs medication you might want to spend the money for the
medication and then bring the medication to your child and have your child take
the medication because you know that that’s good for your child. But you’re
not going to just give cash. There’s a time for me with an adult child who has
a lot of medical issues and emotional issues fits these categories where I pay
for an insurance policy. It’s for me. It’s the insurance policy that I have to
where if something is needed that I won’t have to
cash out my bank account and my savings in order to pay for medical care. If I
have a child who’s in need of something that I’m not that I’d want to give that
child good care. So you know there’s you just want to ask: Is it working? If it’s
not, do something different. If it’s causing damage in your own marriage and
in your own home, if it’s wearing you out, if you’re exhausted, if having that
person around us is disrupting everything else, then you might have to
look for other alternatives. So these are not easy boundaries. These are not easy
questions to answer, but they do help you know that when you’re dealing with the
child that has a mental illness and/or substance abuse along with it that you
have to take all the factors into consideration and make some very wise
decisions. So I hope this has helped you and I hope that you’ll look at more
of my videos on Change My Relationship. Thank you!


  • Reply Sherriden Keogh April 25, 2018 at 11:53 am

    Excellent and very helpful information. Thanks so much for posting. I am guilty of 1 2 & 3 and sometimes 4! My question is this… If you've done everything possible to help and encourage your child and they are still not progressing to the level of wanting to do anything for themselves but yet they live in your home and you are supporting them but you do know they have a possible mental illness then are you just expected to continue allowing them to be living with you and not being productive or paying their own way? My son is 22 years old. He is currently getting some help now. He has been a substance abuser. He is currently clean and sober. He has ADHD and anxiety. He is medicated for the anxiety and depression. There are times I worry that he will be with me forever and freeload off of me because I provide a nice home and food. There are many times I'm not at peace in my own home and it's difficult for me. Thank you for your time.

  • Reply D Light August 31, 2018 at 4:29 am

    My adult son was diagnosed at 24 w schizophrenia. It has been hard on me bc he makes bad choices, won't take care of his health and does seem to care. When they are young in 20s they need lots of support, there is hope then if they make good choose towards recovery.My son now an adult is 40 and drinking when on meds. eventually the mind gets damaged, some people just don't want to take care of themselves they don't care. Yes I have to over look a lot. Who wants to devote their life to caring for an adult that is just slowly killing themself? The $$$ it has cost me, the wear and tear on my mental health and the tears shed with worry grief 20 yrs. yes the definition of insanity for me is hoping and believing a mentally ill adult who has abused self with substances for 20+'years will change. Believing the lies told just so he would have a place to live after 10yrs in hospital and group home. Such a waste. The substance use is a choice he made from boredom. I would talk with him explain exercise,and walking is the best thing for his condition. He did not do anything to take care of himself. He eats crappy sugary or high carb no nutrient foods, smokes 2 packs a day, drinks coffee w 6 tsp sugar all day. he has wore his mind down with the drinking while on meds so now he has almost an Alzheimer's like brain. He did this to himself. It is all I can do to not say anything in anger, clean up his trash and shut off lights and appliances after him. Emotionally he is 12. And when he goes off to be homeless I will have to let go. God bless and make strong those who want to take care of themselves and recover.

  • Reply Barefoot Prof September 5, 2018 at 8:09 am

    The last time my son (narcissism and schizophrenia) got out of rehab 6 months ago I moved him into my rent house because I could not live with his violence any more. He is living there rent free and I am paying his utilities. He came back to my home and broke a security door and screamed at the top of his lungs, so I banned him from my home. So he banned me from "his" house. The problem is I need to make repairs, spray for insects, mow the grass, and change the ac filters. He also refuses to take his garbage to the street or even put it in a barrel. He throws the bag out the back door. Legally I can give him two days notice and do these chores. But he will become dangerous and violent. How can I handle this? I do not have a husband.

  • Reply Tara Love October 12, 2018 at 7:43 pm

    Not everyone who has mental health issues has addiction issues? You can have an adult son/daughter who struggles with depression and does not drink or do drugs. This is crazy, talk about putting people in a box.

  • Reply sumathis January 22, 2019 at 11:02 pm

    Fantastic! Thank you! I’m going through every single step you have mentioned with my adult son

  • Reply forest rain March 7, 2019 at 2:26 pm
    Australian and New Zealander support group for Parents estranged by their adult children

  • Reply Karen Jantzi March 27, 2019 at 3:03 pm

    There is very little managed residential care for adults with long term mental illness. Psychiatrists don’t care. They just push pills. Insurance companies don’t want to pay for treatment plans. What’s a parent to do? I am that remarried mom who’s spouse will not allow my child to live with us. They live on their own but shouldn’t. It’s terrible. No end to crisis and stress. The mental health system is broken. It fills the jails. I dint know what to do anymore. I have to trust God and pray for healing and deliverance. Where is the church? Unfortunately they are creating millionaires in pulpits of gold and not helping people.

  • Reply Knowledge is Power April 21, 2019 at 4:06 am

    I have an adult daughter who suffers with mental illness but bless her heart.. She thinks she doesn't, in fact; she thinks there is nothing wrong with her even after being hospitalized twice and placed on meds. She says the meds makes her feel sick, dizzy, and eventually she passes out. I told her that perhaps they were too potent for her and to go back to her Physician and tell him about her side affects. But she has refused, and simply won't go back. Well, anyway, she had a very good job, was going to school, and had her own apartment, and lost it all and is now residing with me. I am overwhelmed!.. Because she lays down all day, eats wrong (fast-food) everyday, and is literally, anorexic!.. She has lost so much weight, that it scares me. And when I call 911 to try and get her some help, all they keep saying is she's an adult and there's nothing that they can do about it. And so now I've become very angry as well as concerned for my child, to the point where as I find myself yelling at her, nagging, and criticizing, her for not wanting to take the initiative to try and help herself because my apartment is too small for the two of us, and every time I see how much weight she's lost, and how much she lays down and sleep, DRIVES ME CRAZY!!!!!!! MY HAIR HAS GONE FROM BLACK TO GREY IN JUST A SHORT AMOUNT OF TIME. I HAVEN'T A LIFE! AND NEITHER DOES SHE.. CAN SOMEONE PLEASE HELP US??????

  • Reply Carla Schoolcraft May 31, 2019 at 5:29 am

    I give it to God. I realize that I can't do anything without God. I pray that my son is bound to Jesus Christ and that God guides his foot steps…and you know what? Ever since I surrendered my 30 year old teenager to God, God has been faithful. It is hard of course because I am an impatient human that lacks trust in the ways of God when I feel I should step in – but then when I get mentally overwhelmed – that's when I step back and realize God is in control – He always was, always is, always will be, and no matter what I do that drives me short of crazy because I don't understand why, I am reminded by God why – this new world of high tech jobs and fast paced living in a rats cage is not mentally suitable for everyone…namely, those who are labeled with 'bi polar, add, adhd, schizophrenia" and the list goes on. No, these type of individuals would do well living in a secluded terrain tending to a homegrown vegetable garden, painting or drawing or doing something that allows their mind to pour out of itself onto a canvas all the unexplainable irrational open ended ideas that only these type of individuals can feel, and give us rational individuals a good explanation of "WHY"…

  • Reply Ann Harrison June 10, 2019 at 4:20 pm

    Would you consider narcissism as a mental illness?

  • Reply Debbi Orvis June 10, 2019 at 6:22 pm

    My son was diagnosed at age 18 with schizophrenia he is now 33 I spent 15 years dealing with this and I’ve been an advocate for him even when he thought I wasn’t! These are the questions that I longed to have to look at and to ask myself I’ve waited years for this thank you for giving me these questions to ask myself you have no idea how much this is going to help me I am so excited about this I have searched for this it is such a fine line between am I chastising him for having a mental illness you know or am I chastising him for just being a jerk you know what I mean LOL anyway thank you so much I will get back to you and let you know how this helped!

  • Reply Daniella Tan September 18, 2019 at 2:57 pm

    Thank you so much! I am from a different religious faith, yet I find all your videos applicable to my relationships. You have helped me loads with my narc husband and possibly narc teen children, and I am grateful! I think these tips can also be applied to handling elderly parents who are unrealistically demanding and constantly expecting us children who have our own family issues to do almost everything for them when they are in fact capable of doing some of them themselves.

  • Reply Cristina Felix September 29, 2019 at 2:45 am

    Great video !

  • Reply Marie Just Marie November 7, 2019 at 6:49 am

    You can't help your child who is over 21. Your hands are tied. If they don't want the help, refuse the help, and are resistant to help, you are out of luck. They don't see the world as we do. They are in their own world. They don't see the world as we do. "Teaching" them to be independent is useless. As a parent, you have to deal with them, love them, and support them. Why do you think young people who are mentally Ill are always on drugs? It's not always the case. There are limited options. That is the reality of dealing with young adults with mental illness. You just can't toss them to the curb.

  • Reply Beth I November 16, 2019 at 2:55 am

    Our adopted son 29yo has become verbally abusive toward us. Should we go no contact? He lives in another state but is abusive no matter what we say or how we try to show love and caring. He calls the worst names you can imagine, tells us he hates us, and has even said he would like to kill me.

  • Reply Beth I November 16, 2019 at 2:59 am

    I should mention that his mother was bipolar and he is most likely bipolar.

  • Reply Jaded and Empty December 15, 2019 at 4:41 am

    Also, this response mostly has to do with major depression, as I am mainly speaking from experience. Any similarities/discrepancies between other mental illnesses is not something I am intentionally commenting on.

    I like the empathetic approach. As much as it probably sucks in unique ways to have to live with a mentally ill adult child (I am that child, to my mother), there are reasons why the mentally ill act the way they do, or gravitate toward normally undesirable things. They (The sick ones) aren't having fun, it's not a party for them. It's scary when you're the one who feels like they have little or zero "say" in how you feel or what you think. They probably just don't really know what else to do, or have little confidence that other measures will be effective or worth the effort (Which sounds lazy, but when you're exhausted 110% of the time, it can turn into a big undertaking).

    That being said, most mentally ill people are more capable than they think, and need support to gather the stones to make an effort in that direction. Sometimes, the notion of failure alone can be enough to inhibit someone from even TRYING to do something different, or get a handle on it. A lot of the time, they've been told by the world around them as well as themselves, that they can't, so they shouldn't even bother. Even if it doesn't seem like much, I feel like it's important to point out to them that, without making it seem preachy or judgemental, it's not much more effort to, say, ask someone to shower once a week, rather than just dealing with infrequent showers. Once a week may seem like too little for many, but, when you're dealing with a mental illness, once a week can seem like a taller order than none-ce a week, but…. more doable than 2-3x+/week. Baby steps is so cliche to say, but, sometimes it's the only game–or the actual best game–in town.
    There are also better ways to approach reminding someone, without coming off as nagging. If they haven't taken that 1x/weekly shower that they agreed to, and it's Friday, and you're thinking that they won't do it… remind them that their sheets stay clean longer (Thus reducing the burden on you) if they are clean when they use them. It's subtle enough to remind them of what they said they would do, but, it's also helped along by an impersonal presentation of logic–which hopefully, since they DO care for you, O Patient Parent, they will factor in to the guilt complex with minimal guilt. Guilt can be a motivator for some, but for those out there like me, it just makes us shut down, which helps neither me nor my parent in the long run.

    I also understand how it can be confusing and frustrating for the parent(s) in the equation, since they're not inside that headspace themselves, there's only so much they can know about it without explicitly going out of their way to communicate and attempting to understand through their own efforts (Parents, too, are being told by the world and get wildly different opinions about what to address, what to let slide, what is a lie, what is the truth, what to encourage, and what to deny). I think it's important to encourage empathy toward the mentally ill, but ALSO IMPORTANT to remind those who are mentally ill that the world they live in is not the same one that they do, and that they too need to make an effort to analyze what's going on and indicate what would be in their BEST interest how to handle it (Note that I said best, and not easiest). And that parents are people, as well, and deserve consideration as such. It's not about owing. It's about deserving.

    Aside from that, I was very lucky. Despite not having received any formal treatment for major depression, I went looking for myself, because I knew something was wrong, I just… couldn't put it into words. It didn't have a name. When I was a child/teen, it was just a host of bad labels that mostly had to do with character. To this day, I am still having to correct myself that I am not the human equivalent of scum incarnate, but that I am indeed truly ill, the way a person with a diseased organ of any other kind, would be.
    I looked for education about my "issues" because that was my background. My parents encouraged research. That's not everyone's background. I think a lot of people just endure the chaos, and when they realize they aren't equipped to deal with it, they stop fighting it so much. They begin to accept that that's who they are. They give up hope of being different.
    And since their aggressor has no name, no criteria, it makes it that much harder to disentangle the illness from the person. You start to believe that you are just whatever everyone else says you are. And that self blame turns into willful self-destruction. It's completely possible that one who abuses substances is perfectly aware that what they're doing is bad for them… they may be doing it BECAUSE it's bad for them. Because they're hoping to shorten their hellish stay on this floating rock in space. And that self-hatred may be more powerful than the attempts to get through to the individual by concerned/loving parties.

    It can also be a tough thing to do, but I also recommend either buying disposable utensils for the adult-child who doesn't/can't/won't do dishes, rather than viewing it as a point of contention in the relationship. If they are limited to using those utensils, they will likely only use an "actual" plate for heavy meals, and only really need metal utensils for very hot meals. This will reduce your dish burden (And sink clutter) considerably, if you have an adult-child struggling with lethargy. The expense can also be minimized by looking for recycled products at low-priced stores (Believe it or not, the 99 cent store has good quality disposable cups, bowls, plates, butter knives, spoons, and forks).

    I am 30 years old. I've scored above average on most tests, so my condition has nothing to do with a learning disability, but I am still dealing with major depression for going on about 20 years, now. (Not that it was major depression when I was 10, that's just when the symptoms of depression began, and then went completely untreated to the point of becoming major depression. It also runs in the family, on both sides. If there's ever an argument for getting help ASAP, it is major depression, as it can be helped early on and if left to self-perpetuate, it WILL become a lifelong problem that has a bleak prognosis. And, yes, I have been diagnosed by several doctors, and that is what I have heard from them. I trust actual doctors who've devoted years to study more than I trust random articles on the internet.)

  • Reply Jackie Vene December 18, 2019 at 8:07 pm

    Came across this video and it literally unlocked the chain that hve bound me for years with my needy daughter. Thank you and keep up the good work.

  • Reply barrrylincoln January 14, 2020 at 6:40 am

    Just found out recently our 42 year old daughter has been telling everyone terrible lies about us. We did the best we could, as her Dad I always defended her and would have done anything for her. What we found out is she is claiming we beat her as a child and she is saying my wife shook her as an infant causing her to go partially deaf. Personally, I can't remember anything from my infancy. Have learned that some illicit drugs can cause deafness. She is also saying that I beat her face into hamburger and knocked her out, as well as broke every bone in her hand. Her Brother is 2 years older than her, he called her and confronted her on these lies saying it none of it ever happened. She was always the Apple of My Eye, my beautiful daughter. Now I'm hearing from our Grandson that she smoked spice with him when he was 13. Her husband of 17 years is divorcing her because of some wild stories she came up with about him. He saved her life one night when she was on phentanyl patches. She was scooping the medicine out of them and eating it. She has been to a 30 day drug rehab for cocaine and valium that cost $60,000, insurance paid most of about 7 years ago. More recently she has been in a mental ward diagnosed as manic and bipolar. She was there twice for 2 weeks at a time. She got drunk and Lord only knows what else she was on. She ran a stop sign and broadsided a car, then left the scene, The Police were at her door the next morning and she wanted to go back to the mental ward for the 3rd time. Said she was feeling suicidal. They probably can't charge her with DUI but said they could smell alcohol on her 14 hours after the accident. That was 10 days ago, we heard she was getting out tomorrow. The last time she was there they said if she came back she would have to stay 180 days. I don't get it, they are letting her go? I have not been able to forgive her for her lies,, my wife says she really believes these things, wants me to forgive her. I say even Our Heavenly only forgives those who ask forgiveness. We have not seen her since I started applying more pressure on her to come clean from her lies, a few weeks ago. We picked her up last time she was in there, her husband picked her up the 1st time. Don't know how she will get home this time. She has taken up with a man who has been in prison for 3 domestic violence charges, assaulting a Police Officer and escaping prison. He is an absconder from probation. All this is so upsetting I can't take much more. She has our grandson (her son) believing her lies She is sticking with her stories. I am afraid to let her come here, as crazy as she is she could beat her own face up and blame me, or anything else that comes into her warped mind. She isn't welcome. She calls us horrible names and says horrible things. She said she wants nothing to do with us until we get counseling and get hypnotized so we remember what we did to her. I believe someone might have hypnotized her and planted this stuff in her. It's just so ridiculous. We are Bible Believing Christians and don't believe in hypnotism. My wife has been seeing a Christian Councilor from the Church. He says she has to hit bottom, I thought 3 trips to the mental ward was the bottom. She might be facing charges for fleeing an accident on country roads. Her excuse was the other car went through the intersection too slow. He had the right of way, she had a stop sign. She smashed up her 5 month old $36,000 SUV. I don't know about the other car or if anyone was injured. All her friends have stopped seeing her. She was drinking with one of her friends 16 year old son and punched her friend in the face. There is a restraining order on her now.

    This is long and sounds too crazy to be true, but it is. It's also only some of what we have been through with her. If I was going to make up a story I couldn't dream up anything this crazy.

    My Mother in Law is 90, widowed since Dec 13, 2019, mostly Blind and has a 50 year old Downs Syndrome Daughter at home. She lives in another state 1000 miles away. She needs us to go there and help out. I just don't know what to do. I hate to leave our home of 37 years in the winter but might be our best option. This is probably too far out there to imagine we could get any good advice from a you tube video but, at this point I'm so desperate I'll try anything. My wife and I are 67 years old and not in the best health. What a time in our lives to have all this happen.

    Thanks for reading this mess.

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