A Study Into The Main Effects Of Mentally Ill Mothers On Their Children

A study (McCormac et al.) conducted at the University of Newcastle was conducted to investigate the main effects on childrens’ behavioral and emotional states of being brought up by a mentally ill mother (a total of 13 mothers with serious mental disorders and had previously been hospitalized in psychiatric wards participated in the study). Information used in the study was gathered using semi-structured interviews.

RESULTS OF THE STUDY :

Overall, the children involved in the study were described as having experienced ‘a fractured journey of growth’ into adulthood, and, more specifically, the adverse effects of such an upbringing were delineated into six main themes. These six themes were as follows :

1) STIGMA :

The feeling of being different from their peers is particularly painful for children and, accordingly, the perceived stigma (due to misunderstanding, fear, prejudice, ignorance etc.) surrounding having a mentally ill parent was found to be a significant theme that emerged from the study.

2) SOCIAL ISOLATION :

Many forms of chronic childhood trauma can impair the child’s ability to form and maintain good relationships with peers, leading to social rejection. Also, a sense of shame (see below) can inhibit the child’s inclination to try to make friends. Furthermore, some children of mentally ill parents may become ‘parentified‘ or become their parent’s emotional caretaker, leaving little time to socialize.

3) SHAME :

It is a very unfortunate fact that, when children are traumatized by their parents, they tend to blame themselves and, therefore, are liable to experience feelings guilty and a pervasive sense of shame. This is especially true if their parent’s illness has not been explained to them and they do not understand it (especially in terms of how it adversely impacts on their parent’s behavior towards them).

4) BETRAYAL:

To be chronically abused and maltreated by the very people who are supposed to love, nurture and protect one is to experience a profound sense of betrayal and, indeed, this was found to be one of the emergent six major themes underlying derived from the data collected.

5) PURPOSEFUL REDEFINITION OF SELF :

More positively, another main theme was found to be the development of the ability to ‘redefine’ the self.

For example, one participant explained that despite his childhood experiences initially leading to feelings of self-hatred (irrational self-hatred, sadly, is an all too typical response to having been subjected to chronic childhood ill-treatment, e.g. see my previously published article entitled : Childhood Trauma Leading To Self-Hatred And Intense Self-Criticism), as an adult he was able to reflect, and understand, how his painful, early life experiences had affected him, and, as a result, become self-accepting (in relation to this, you may wish to read my previously published article entitled : Self-Acceptance More Helpful To Mental Health Than Self-Esteem).

Others were able to gain a greater sense of personal authenticity by undertaking higher education.

6) PSYCHOLOGICAL GROWTH :

Again, on the positive side, some participants in the study described how their extremely challenging experiences had, ultimately, made them stronger, more resourceful, more compassionate, more empathetic and more authentic. (In relation to this, you might be interested to read my previously published article entitled : Posttraumatic Growth : How Trauma Can Positively Transform Us.

IMPLICATIONS FOR THERAPY :

Despite the potential negative effects of childhood trauma, the experience can also lead to positive changes in the individual, lending support to the concept of posttraumatic growth – an understanding of this can help those who have suffered maltreatment in childhood to reframe their view of the implications of their experiences in a way which helps them to take a more hopeful view of their future personal development.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

About David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

Psychologist, researcher and educationalist.

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