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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

A research project examining a child's prespective

Hylda Gryba

Reprinted from "Parenting" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2 (2), p. 6

I'm currently working on a research project which examines a child’s experience of the hospitalization of a parent who suffers from a mental illness. Face-to-face, semi-structured interviews were held with ten children between the ages of 8 and 18. The interviews focused on major themes such as the memories of the event, the child’s understanding of mental illness, what changes resulted (e.g., living arrangements), advice for professionals, what helped, what didn’t help, and coping strategies. The audio transcripts of the interviews were then analysed and the emerging themes identified

As this is research that is currently being conducted and the analysis is in process, it is too early to arrive at definite conclusions. However, in the preliminary findings, some very definite themes are emerging. Comments like, “When I saw her face, I felt okay,” or descriptions of how it felt to be “torn apart” flowed throughout the interviews, identifying the themes of grief and loss, and the child’s need to stay connected to the parent.

Another theme that is apparent is that of caretaking and shared family burden. Children often made comments such as, “We noticed that he was. . .” or “I called the police.” The child’s role in caretaking is seen on many different levels. The child may learn to take care of his/her own basic needs such as making meals, getting to school, doing laundry, etc. There were also instances in which very young children commented on their active participation in treatment and illness management. Comments such as “I always give her the medication because she forgets to take it,” or “I do it for her because Dad gets too frustrated,” point out the very active role that children are very likely to play, and the child’s need to stay connected to the parent.

Another theme that is apparent is that of caretaking and shared family burden. Children often made comments such as, “We noticed that he was. . .” or “I called the police.” The child’s role in caretaking is seen on many different levels. The child may learn to take care of his/her own basic needs such as making meals, getting to school, doing laundry, etc. There were also instances in which very young children commented on their active participation in treatment and illness management. Comments such as “I always give her the medication because she forgets to take it,” or “I do it for her because Dad gets too frustrated,” point out the very active role that children are very likely to play, and the tremendous burden of responsibility they shoulder. Combined with those tangible burdens are the emotional and psychological burdens the children spoke of. They often “worried,” were “afraid,” and “suffered,” in various situations, suggesting that the family burden of mental illness has very definite impact on the child’s daily life.

The children also gave good insights into things that they found helpful. Being given information about what was happening and about the mental illness were foremost. “When I learned it was a chemical imbalance, somehow it didn’t seem so bad,” was one comment. Advice to professionals included:

1. be nurturing: “give them an ice-cream and a big family hug

2. provide reassurance and support: “tell them it’s going to be okay”

3. provide opportunities to have fun and to act ‘normally’: going to school, playing games, and maintaining daily routines were identified as helpful activities

Being ignored or dismissed and excluded were the behaviours seen as unhelpful or harmful. One child emphasized, “They couldn’t stop me, I was going to see her!

In regards to coping strategies, children identified several strategies such as pretending and fantasies; talking to counsellors, friends, or family members; and joining support groups. Hope and meaning were also valued by the children who stated that they “had to believe things would get better” or that they would “find a way to make things work for the best.”

This research project was designed to provide an opportunity for children to speak up and to inform us about their experience living with a parent who has a mental illness, particularly around the circumstance of the parent’s hospitalization. The initial findings suggest that children, by virtue of being a family member, are full participants in the course and treatment of a parent’s illness, and that they are impacted in very real ways. The collective voices of these children identified the wish to have that participation acknowledged by being nurtured, supported, informed and included when the family experiences a traumatic event

 
About the Author

Hylda is a nurse clinician currently working as a therapist with the Abbottsford Child and Youth Mental Health Team for the Ministry for Children and Family Development. She developed a children's psychoeducational support program for children who have a parent with a mental illness, known as Kids in Control, and is a current member of the provincial working group on Supporting Families with Parental Mental Illness. She is presently completing her research for her MA in conselling psychology

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