Friday, August 01, 2008

Dismaying Story #127: Dealing With Mental Illness

Dear Andrew,

My friend is remarried and has three boys, 14, 11, and 9. Her first husband has a lot of mental problems, which is why she left him. She's out of the toxic relationship, but her boys aren't. Their dad is still in contact, and that contact is troubling. Dad was diagnosed with mental illness years ago.

Dad has often promised to send holiday presents to the boys, yet they never come. My friend is not inclined to cover for him and buy the gifts for the boys as she believes that's deceitful. I don't see how she could, anyway. Dad will contact them after the holiday with photos of the gift cards he's bought, saying if Mom lets them visit, he'll give them their presents. He's accused her (to the boys) of stealing the gifts he sent, money he says he sent, etc. He can't see them as there is a court order barring him from private contact. He's hurt the boys physically in the past. He won't give them anything in front of her or the court-appointed representative because he thinks they are both working against him to take his money.

My question is this - with the courts guarding his right to talk to his children, how can Mom address the topic of Dad and his illness? These boys, especially the youngest, are hurt by his behavior. I think she's done a great job, but she's even said there are times she doesn't know what to say to the boys when Dad hurts them again. She chooses silence, but as she said, the oldest boy is beginning to want more of an explanation and maybe just a sounding board.

Any suggestions would be welcome.

Signed, Dealing With Mental Illness

Dear Dealing,

That is a tough situation. Often it is much harder to see our loved ones hurt than it is to be hurt ourselves. I suspect your friend would do anything to protect her children, and she clearly feels hand-cuffed by the circumstances.

Your friend seems to believe that being honest with the boys would be hard on them. Maybe she worries they are too young to understand the concept of mental illness, or that they would be inclined to shun their “crazy” father if they apply that label in their minds. Or maybe she worries the boys would find the truth more unsettling than his seemingly inexplicable behavior.

Admittedly I am not as close to this situation as your friend, but neither of those worries seems as potentially damaging to me as the situation you describe. The boys are hurt over and over again by their father’s actions.

What can they conclude from this?

Children often see the world from a self-centric point of view. They will interpret his actions with themselves at the center of the issue. In their minds, they are directly related to the cause of his actions.

“He doesn’t give me a present because he doesn’t like me, because he doesn’t think I’m good enough, because I’m really not good enough” ... and so on.

This is obviously hard for the boys. They have zero responsibility for the situation and for their father’s behavior. Allowing them to believe otherwise can lead to problems with low self-esteem and all that brings with it.

My suggestion is that the best way to protect the boys is to explain to them in an age-appropriate manner that their father has a sickness. Reassure them that the specific things he does are due to the sickness, not because of any bad opinions of the boys or because of any failings on their part.

Children often surprise adults with their ability to absorb and cope with life issues. I suspect your friend can help her children by leveling with them, giving them a truthful explanation of what is happening, and helping them deal with all their reactions, questions, and doubts, both immediately and over time as they think about the issues. I bet they handle the revelation better than their mother might predict, and chances are good that their overall stress level will be reduced.

Please wish her good luck for me.

All the best,

Tomorrow (Saturday) is a first for me. I will be interviewed on a nationally-syndicated radio program. People in 120 different markets will listen to me talk with Darla Shine of the Happy Housewives Club. The interview arose because of Dismaying Story #14: The Affair-Proof Marriage, which is slated to be the topic of the interview. If you happen to live in a city that carries Darla Shine, perhaps you’ll get a chance to listen in.


  1. Andrew,
    Congratulations on your first nationally-syndicated interview ! Whoo-hoo - do we have the next 'Larry King' here ?

    I think telling the kids the truth is the best way to go. That and explaining the kid-centric worries, which you are right, is also key. Kids always think it is them, and that has to be addressed so it totally disappears. It's hard to learn that someone can be cruel/unavailable, etc, - and that it has nothing to do with your own worth or loveability or goodness as a person - it really IS just them.

    p.s. Blogger has been completely messed up in the last 24 hours due to an internet explorer vs. site-meter/stat-counter problem. Grrr !

    And they have also been randomly freezing people's blogs as spam sites when they aren't !

    So if you haven't been getting a lot of comments, that may be why - it has been impossible to go visit anyone.

  2. Hi Dr. Andrew, Again, I am left knowing for certain why you are doing the counselling instead of me. My daughter raised three little boys (who are doing extemely well) after she threw their father out when they were all pre-school age. (He was a real cheat) One is in U. of Penn Law School, one is an Arabic interpreter for the Air Force and the youngest is a senior at the local University. All had problems with their relationship with their father, but he has grown up and does love his kids. If you wait long enough, the children will grow old enough to realize that things just are that they are. My grandsons are beginning to enjoy occasional contact with their Dad and he is very proud of them. You can't change whom your parents are.... you just have to grow old enough to forgive them their stupidity.

  3. I agree it is better to tell the children something thing than to let them try to blame them self for his actions.

  4. Congrats on the interview doc! I hope it goes well for you.

    This is a really sad situation. I agree with you that being honest is probably the best for their self-esteem. Goodness, I feel for this woman and anyone in this situation for that matter.