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Relationship advice for parents of children who are mentally ill

Parents of children with a mental illness, often devote a lot of their time to caregiving responsibilities, leaving little time for the partner. Here is some advice that can help you strengthen your relationship.

Even the healthiest of relationships can come under a lot of stress when one or both parents are caring for a child who has been diagnosed with a mental illness. Some relationships are further strengthened in this situation, while others begin to show cracks.Dr Rathna Isaac shares some tips on how to help keep the relationship strong, while caring for a child who is mentally ill.

Make communication your priority

When a child is diagnosed with a mental illness, there is bound to be a lot of grief and disappointment. The future you have envisioned might suddenly seem elusive, and both partners are likely to go through periods of bitterness and frustration. If these feelings are allowed to fester, it will gradually impact the relationship. Some partners may begin to withdraw, while some others may play the blame game (for example, "it is all in your genes"). The most important advice for couples in these difficult caregiving situations is to talk frequently. Openly share what’s weighing on your mind, listen to what the other person has to say and learn to empathize.

Address imbalance of responsibilities

In a country that has been largely patriarchal, it is not uncommon to find men still holding on to unrealistic expectations such as laying the onus of caregiving on the woman and saying it’s her job to care for the child. In most cases, the caregiving journey begins with one person taking on more responsibilities than the other. As the responsibilities mount, the relationship grows distant, and problems begin to arise. A healthier way to look at this is to operate as a team and understand that if one parent chooses to stay home and care for the child, both need to work together on addressing the associated issues. For instance, the parent who stays at home might want to take a break a few times a week. Whether your partner is working to pay the bills or staying home to care for the child, know that what your partner needs the most is an acknowledgment of their role.

Plan your finances

Finances need proactive planning. Children with a mental illness may need therapy, and high-quality therapy often comes with a significant cost. There may be a lot of other unplanned expenses as well such as commute, medication, etc. In such situations, openly discuss and negotiate the responsibilities. If something is not working out as planned, be flexible enough to change the course of action. If you have quit your job to care for your child, review your decision few months later. Your child may now be in a trusted therapy centre and this may allow you to work part-time. Whichever decision you make, as a couple, sit down and talk about the financial implications. Caring for a child who is ill may mean that a number of your life goals may be delayed, such as buying a house. Accept the situation and learn to tailor your expectations to match it.

Staying connected

Isolation is one of the key challenges parent caregivers of children with a mental illness face. In a society where mental illness continues to be stigmatized, many parents find it difficult to talk openly about their child’s problem. However, if you are hesitant to talk about the biggest thing on your mind (in this case, your child’s wellbeing), it may become difficult to form genuine, authentic connections. Lack of social life may result in one parent having an intense relationship with the child or one of the partners feeling dissatisfied and breaking away from the relationship. To avoid this, nurture friendships with people who are non-judgmental and understanding. Join support groups where you are likely to meet parent caregivers in similar situations.