Guess who’s coming to holiday dinner: Adult children with mental illness (known or suspected)
By Sheri McGregor, M.A.
Whether your semi- or previously estranged adult child has been officially diagnosed with a mental disorder or you’re just speculating, if you’ll be saying to relatives this holiday season, “Guess who’s coming to dinner,” this article is for you. While you can’t control everything, you don’t have to feel helpless. Here, I’ll help you devise strategies to manage interaction at holiday events in your unique circumstances.
Adult children with mental illness: One family’s story
Beverly and Thomas are apprehensive about the holidays. This year, their previously estranged daughter will be present. “And that can mean drama,” says Beverly.
From her early twenties, their daughter, Trish, was unstable in her jobs and relationships. Periods of full estrangement alternated with times when she was irritable or distant. Beverly and Thomas suspected mental illness, but their daughter vehemently opposed any evaluation that might lead to help. She eventually cut them off completely, and for three years, they had zero contact. Their daughter also refused contact with her siblings.
Beverly and Thomas were devastated but they got on with their lives. Then, they received a telephone call from an in-patient behavioral health care facility. “The social worker told us Trish needed a place to go upon her discharge. She’d given the social worker our number.”
Beverly choked up as she talked about hearing her daughter’s voice over the telephone line a day later. “Trish was tearful and apologetic, and she sounded so childlike and needy. She’d been preliminarily diagnosed with bipolar, borderline personality disorder, and anxiety, and she’d been evicted from her apartment. She was scared and conciliatory … and she needed her mom and dad.”
Beverly and Thomas could finally confirm their suspicions: Mental illness caused Trish’s instability and the years of discord and disconnect. They forgave Trish for her past cruelty to them and asked Trish’s sisters to do the same. They thought that now, their daughter would get well, and the family would heal.
Trish was discharged a week later and lived with them for more than a year. The parents were patient, kind, and trying to help. However, they describe her time with them as nothing short of volatile. Trish was hospitalized twice for psychotic episodes that included suicide threats. She also drifted in and out of several outpatient treatment programs.
“It was a tough time,” says Beverly. With a sad laugh, she adds, “Anyone who knows anything about mental illness knows that statement is loaded.” She describes her daughter’s constant mood swings and the ceaseless tension that filled their home as almost unbearable at times. “Drama unfolded minute by minute with her, and then there was the roller coaster of treatment. Hope arrived with each new program or medication, and then disappointment each time she refused to continue with the help she always said didn’t work for her.”
Thomas says, “And the failure was always someone else’s fault.”
Eventually, the couple’s daughter was stable enough to crave her independence. She found an entry-level position with a marketing company where her degree was useful and moved out. Beverly and Thomas were concerned about her living on her own, but they also admit to feeling relief. Since then, their daughter’s contact has been sporadic at best—sometimes peaceful and sometimes not. “We’ve tried to be welcoming,” says Beverly. “But we’re never sure how a visit will go.”
Thomas explains, “There’s no predicting what triggers her verbal abuse, which is mostly directed at Beverly. The last time she was here, I had to tell her to leave. Then the next day she sent flowers with an apology.”
“It’s the mental illness talking,” says Beverly. “But that doesn’t change how much damage she can do.”
Adult children with mental illness: Mitigating the damage
In my latest book, Beyond Done With The Crying: More Answers and Advice for Parents of Estranged Adult Children you’ll find sections devoted to managing situations involving adult children with mental illness. Parents who’ve made the choice to stay in touch do so with purpose that accomplishes goals and limits their exposure thus their hurt. Examples of reconciling with adult children with mental illness (or undiagnosed instability) are included.
Identify your concerns for holiday interaction
For Beverly and Thomas, the main concern was the possibility of their daughter’s verbal abuse. An outburst would be confusing for their grandchildren. “Our other daughters have five children between them, aged six to twelve,” says Beverly. “If Trish suddenly explodes, she’s likely to call me names like ‘evil’ and ‘psycho.’ She might accuse me of abuse and say I’ve always hated her. It would be upsetting for the kids to hear their grandma treated like that.”
Beverly is still learning to navigate the murky channels between her daughter’s abuse and her own patience. She and the family are weighing what they have learned about mental illness in general, and Trish’s disorders specifically, with their desire to help and the need to stay safe themselves.
Some mentally ill individuals aren’t aware of their own disorders. The lack of insight, called “anosognosia,” makes convincing them to seek or continue treatment a rocky road. Agreeing with lies or allowing abuse is not wise or advised, but Beverly and Thomas don’t feel ready yet to completely lose touch. They speak for many parents of adult children with mental illness.
No one wants the children exposed to Trish’s venom toward Beverly, yet they can’t predict her behavior with certainty. Therefore, they’re hoping for the best. She will be welcomed for the holidays … with a plan in place.
Adult children with mental illness: Gathering your team
When a family member is mentally ill, expert consensus recommends those close to them form a team of support—for the affected individual and for each other. “That’s not easy to do when you’re accused of trying to turn the family against them,” says Beverly, whose daughter has accused her of this. “But how could we have a holiday dinner with her present and not all of us talk about it first?”
Beverly, Thomas, their other daughters, and their sons-in-law have decided on some basic rules:
- They will be aware of Trisha’s whereabouts at all times.
- The children will never be left on their own during the party.
- The adults will work in pairs to supervise the children.
- At the sign of any outburst, the children will be ushered into a separate room or outdoors, with planned, neutral language (Let’s go out here and see this . . . .).
- Family members have decided upon a hand signal, a phrase from a movie that won’t fit normal conversation, or a clap (depending on the situation) to alert the others to possible conflict.
- If necessary, Thomas and their oldest daughter’s husband will escort Trish to her car, attempt to calm her, or see that she leaves.
Your circumstances: Your unique plan
If you’re expecting difficult personalities at the holiday celebration, first identify your concerns. Perhaps, like Beverly and Thomas, you’re worried about verbal abuse that can confuse children or other relatives who may not be fully aware of the circumstances. Unfounded blame or accusations can stir a domino effect, causing questions or damaging gossip among relatives. Or your concern may be the individual’s penchant for a particular topic, drinking too much, or as one parent voiced, “Bringing cannabis-laced food.”
Once you know the concern(s), devise plans that are doable and as non-intrusive as is sensible for the circumstances. For some, that might mean avoiding hot button topics or eating out. For others, a more elaborate plan may be needed, such as the one arranged by Beverly and Thomas.
Here are a few more ideas:
- Assign a “safe” person to the affected one. (Sometimes, one family member is most trusted, brings out the best in the individual, or is well-equipped to defuse and deescalate conflict.)
- Celebrate in a restaurant or other public space, which may be more neutral (helping to avoid emotional triggers).
- Don’t serve alcohol.
- If one person is the “target” of the difficult personality, minimize contact by strategic seating arrangements, and make sure that person is never left alone.
“No” is an option
Some families in these volatile semi- or previously estranged situations decide to forego the holiday gatherings entirely. Alternative pursuits such as travel are always an option. If you need to beg off this year, don’t go on a guilt trip. Instead, pat yourself on the back for the part you played in all the beautiful celebrations and good times past. The holidays appear every year. If you can’t celebrate as usual this year, all is not lost. Also, recognize that taking kind care of yourself, even during the holidays, is a vital step toward your own healing.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for planning holidays when adult children have mental illness. Ditto for gatherings where difficult personalities will be present, or when navigating prickly semi- or previously estranged relationships. Some of you may be attending events at others’ homes, where your estranged adult child will be present. Beyond Done With The Crying: More Answers and Advice for Parents of Estranged Adult Children offers specific advice for tense events of all sorts.
Do you have a worrisome event ahead? I hope you will share your thoughts to help other parents who may be managing these sorts of issues this holiday season.
Why do adult children estrange? Let’s look at nature or nurture
- More about anosognosia:
Information from NAMI
Book specifically on helping those with anosognosia: I Am Not Sick, I Don’t Need Help! How to Help Someone Accept Treatment – 20th Anniversary Editiona>
Join the newsletter
Subscribe to get our latest content by email.
I have a situation I have not seen yet. Our 26 year old adoptive daughter was raised in an upper class livestyle: Vacations at Christmas & spring breaks, summer home on Lake Michigan, spoiled being the only child & granddaughter, college paid for, SAH Mom & Dad, etc. In 8th grade she began showing signs of depression:cutting, locking herself in her room, listing to EMO music,etc. She saw a therapist & psychiatrist & was put on anti-depression medication. She did pretty well in high school, but was diagnosed with BPD at age 20. I was the Mom that drove her & her friends around & hosted high school parties for them. She had frequent mood swings, caused by her BPD, that I gave i to rather than fight with her. I had been a social drinker when she was growing up & it began to gradually increase. I would drink a glass of wine when we went out or had company over which she witnessed. When she was 22 I was hospitalized with pancreatiis & stopped drinking all together. I lost my own Mom 2 years later & began drinking heavily & lost a great deal of weight. My family did an intervention & I went to a 30 day program. She refused to be a part of the intervention & I don’t blame her. I sure it would have been very painful for her. I consider myself a recovering alcoholic & am working hard on my sobriety. I have not seen her in over a year. I have asked her to do joint counseling, & Al-Anon which she refuses. When I asked her about holiday parties she said she is having PTSD from our families drinking at parties & her Father, my husband driving home drunk once on Christmas Eve. She has cut herself off from all family whom she used to be very close with. We paid for her Vet. Tech program, a car & a house a mile away from
from a family trust fund. She only calls her Dad if she is having car trouble, a problem with her house, etc. She does see a therapist & pychiatist & has a good job in her field. She will only occasionally text me. I am heartbroken & it is affecting my marriage. My husband told her if she doesn’t want to be a part of our family he is going to cut her off from all help. I blame myself because it was my drinking that caused the estrangement.
I try to explain her BPD to my husband & other family members but they feel like she should have forgiven me by now & just give her time, etc. I sent her a long e-mail that we all haves diseases as my husband has metastic cancer on top of all our other health problems. And I can’t change my past behavior.We are in our 60’s. I am afraid if she doesn’t come to my husband’s family Christmas Eve Party he is going to be so sad and angry. She is single & our only child & we are both heart-broken.Thank you for listening.
These sorts of issues are dealt with fairly thoroughly in BEYOND Done With The Crying (my latest book). I think you will find the information helping in dealing with your own history as well as her BPD. In the end, situations are unique…and unless people have seen some of what can go on and truly understands a mental disorder such as BPD, then they may not understand. In which case, we must learn to stand on our own, realize and forgive others because they don’t get it, and feel good about who we are. It takes emotional muscles, fortitude, and practice. I think you would find the book helpful.
HUGS to you dear Mary.
This made me feel so much better just to know that I am not alone. I suspect my daughter has BPD. Her moods shift on a dime, and she attacks me mostly whenever she is in the mood to, which is quite often. She is 32, and I am just tired of being verbally abused by her. She berates me and tells me what a horrible mother I am and that I don’t love her, even though I have helped her out financially over the years over and over again and I have been a good mother. She was never abused in any way. If I disagree with anything she says, she flies off the handle and belittles me and she knows just how to push my buttons and hurt me quickly. It leaves me feeling gutted and hurt and takes me several days to swim out of the funk. My ex husband says that he just “keeps it light” and treads lightly, so as not to piss her off, but it is exhausting to me, and honestly, I am relieved that she is not talking to me again, and I feel guilty for feeling relieved. My husband of the last 20+ years says he is relieved as well. He is convinced that she has mental health issues. I am so tired of the turmoil. Thanks for listening. I really want to figure out how to be okay with my life and enjoy myself without this constant black cloud of guilt that always seems to be in my peripheral vision, even on good days. I talk about this to few people because I know that they would judge me. People do not understand who have not been there. I am so jealous of people who seem to have wonderful relationships with their adult children and grandchildren, even though from the outside looking in, you would think I have a fabulous life. Maybe a lot of other people are suffering as well, and we just never see it.
Dear Wendy can we relate to what you are going through with your daughter. We have 2 daughters who have acted in the same way. As the Mother I am usually the one who is the brunt of their abuse, my husband didn’t even know some of the things said to me. Now, that I have cancer and after taking care of g-kids for many years we decided to move to a sunny climate just for ourselves. Isn’t it odd that we are so bad but the only one that they want taking care of their children? It was a major decision to move to another state especially regarding the g-children but they are older, is still is devastating but adult children also can use their children as weapons. After 4 months of moving and being in a better place the stress has lifted and we are enjoying living again. The family situation isn’t looking us in the face everyday and we can keep busy and have some fun. It is horrible that our daughters could be so mean but they both do display bi polar issues although not diagnosed (because there is nothing wrong with them). But maybe there isn’t an excuse, maybe they are just mean-spirited. They are in their 40’s and we are blamed for everything now in their lives. After years of abuse, I finally feel like me again. Now that we are away from it, we can see that it affected every aspect of our life. Depression/anxiety and sick to the stomach were things that we both felt. We hope that with distance & time, relationships will be repaired but at this point we are just going to live and try and stay healthy, we keep in touch with g-kids by text. Hope that you can find what helps and will work for you. And know we aren’t the only ones, there are lots of families going through the same thing. Hugs
As parents, the holidays are the worst, for us. The new year can’t get here soon enough. Christmas music makes us down. Everyone is so jolly, looking forward to spending time with family. We’re envious of those that do. The holidays will be especially painful this year because we are first time grandparents and have been told by our son that we will never be able to meet our grandson. His wife goes along with all of this, but perhaps she has no choice. We do not want to make a problem in his marriage, so this has never been a discussion with our daughter in law. Recently, he has cut off all communication with us, said we are dead to him and publicly humiliated us on Facebook. The reason he said… “political differences” yet we never discuss politics. My husband said if it wasn’t this reason, it would be something else. Our son took one away one of the most joyful events in our lives, (spending time with our grandson) because he knew how much that would hurt us. Our son has had a personality disorder for years. Anger issues, especially when he doesn’t get his way. Overspends and credit is maxed out. Try couching every word you say to your child, just so you don’t piss him off. You do what you have to do just so you aren’t in another confrontation. We bend over backwards, caving to his every demand and still it’s not enough. He’s been given every opportunity in life, and graduated from an out of state university debt free, yet he thinks we are cheap and some how did him wrong. Totally ungrateful and unappreciative. We were originally told that we could come visit our one month old grandson at Thanksgiving, but when it came time for us to purchase our airline tickets, we were told that was never going to happen. Not visiting our grandson was never mentioned until after we fully furnished the nursery, which we wanted to do, but I’m sure the timing was orchestrated. We’ve gone to counseling, to figure out how to deal with this. Daily total heartache to know you have raised someone who truly despises you, yet you don’t really understand why.
I am so sorry this has happened to you. I can’t imagine how much this hurts. You are not alone. There are so many adult children who suffer from mental illness.
My heart reach’s out to you, don’t give up, keep Hope in your heart & believe you will see your grandson.
I’m reading the words and they are a biography, a text book/diary of my life.
My daughter disowned us because of her brothers mental health. He is officially disabled due to his mental health and lives with us. He/we don’t see his children. Our daughter we think, also has MH problems but is married and leading her own life. There is no middle ground anymore. She has bullied, insulted, berated and demeaned us both privately and in public for the last time.
The only good news is our other son has returned to the fold and we now see his children after five years of separation. He has left his wife, who we know has been a major factor in the demise of our family unit.
I should be happy. Truth is I’m confused and hurt as ever and I’m not sure I’ll ever feel the same about anything again. I’ve just weaned myself off anti depressants but I’m sinking again. Is there no end to all this?
In the past years you have been hurt & it’s hard to mend, you may be like me and do not share your whole self in giving.
It doe’s hurt to see loved ones getting ready for Christmas with no worry’s in life.
My grandchildren live in another state, I visited before covert & talk on the phone
which help’s. And do hope to visit soon.
I hope my eldest Son will forgive me, he has missed out on many year’s, he is due to get out of jail soon & not talking to me.
Abused & raped by his Step father, unknown to me, has been a night mare.
People ask why didn’t you leave ?
for me it was because he threatened to kill my family & I believed he would.
Don’t give up, I’m not & I hope that a lot of people will get to see, hear from them.
Life is to short to wait for contact, please keep enjoying life as best as you can.
I have a terminal illness & given 6months, this was 5 year’s ago. I now have help & pray that I get to see my Son & grand children.
I wish that you have a great Christmas & the New Year will bring Miracles for all
Thanks for sharing this story. Its really hard for parents to recognise if estrangement resulted from child’s mental health .
You’re welcome, wasim.
I’m going to write more about this, and I have included a bit more on mental health in the new book.
Hugs to you,
I fear my adult daughter may have a mental illness, but it has not been diagnosed. She has frequent mood swings and can become angry at anything I say. We were estranged for several years. This past year I thought we were on the path to reconciliation, but just two weeks ago she verbally abused me in a vicious way about old things from the distant past I thought we had talked through and were OK with. I had to ask her to leave my home.
There has been no contact from her about what happened, and my plans to see her and my adult grandchildren on Thanksgiving have had to be altered. I will not be with them, and that hurts. But after so much verbal abuse through the years, plus the long estrangement, I realize I have to establish firmer boundaries to protect myself. Yes, she seems to take out her unhappiness on me, but she does this with others too. That’s why I think she needs a diagnosis for a mental illness, but I’m not sure that will happen. She has used several therapists and eventually finds fault with every one of them at some point. Then she quits going and stops taking anti-depressants. She uses a lot of marijuana (legal in my state).
The holiday season will be hurtful for me again this year. I live alone and have no other children. I will do the best I can to get through it by leaning on friends and siblings and trying to keep my spirits up by staying as busy as possible. I will go to church, volunteer, read books about how to deal with this, and get together with people when I can. I plan to order Sheri’s new book, “Beyond Done With The Crying…”
Thank you for being here for us.
My story may be different from some. I have a 47 year old daughter who left home to live with her boyfriend and his family when she was 17. Her reason why? Because his mom told her she could do anything she wanted if she moved in with them. I may have been over protective but I thought I saw signs of mental illness in her from time to time. Her dad was uninvolved with us much of the time. Ever since then she has been in and out of my life and likes to gaslight me by claiming that’s not true (that’s what I hear from others). Especially since her dad and I divorced in 2005. It’s been two years since I’ve heard from her now and tomorrow is Thanksgiving and she may be coming to her brother’s house which is where I’ll be.
I have no idea if she’ll play the victim in front of others or give me dirty looks when no one will notice.
Fortunately they’ll be with a large crowd! I’ve been hurt by the things she’s pulled like taking a trip with me and then posting on FACEBOOK it was the worst thing that ever happened to her. Another time she invited me over so we could work on our relationship with the help of her current boyfriend and they both recorded the whole thing without my knowing. They both put me on “trial” for lying about having cancer!
The truth is the Lord healed me from lung cancer. Unfortunately that has taken a lot of joy out of my testimony. I could go on and on. Anyway if you see this before tomorrow I’d appreciate prayer.
Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving
I understand you received a miracle, I don’t know why your daughter is being so nasty to you. It definitely does help to Know LET GO & LET GOD, I did this with 2 Son’s, 1 to go.
It hurt’s me that I may not get to see my 1st Son, but I believe in Miracles and have had uncountable MIRACLES I have now had 5 1/2 years. Let go & look after you, you are a beautiful Lady & don’t forget this.
I have perhaps a unique situation which probably not solvable for me at least….my forty year daughter is a psychotherapist, yet at the same time …..what can I say….mentally unbalanced. I am one of her main targets…..especially when she has her one now 10 year daughter present as audience. She is capable of making a super wonderful Christmas and the next day yell, rant, rave, even throw things……all done in front of my grandaughter and even better also her husband……I am eighty-one, live in a foreign country, must speak in english they converse in the other language, even translate to granddaughter , the reason being according to them is that I seem different when I speak German. That is enough except to say, I am actually at this point physically afraid of having her in my house ….. also, the transformation is so sudden she can leave to return in ten minutes as though nothing had happened …..this is really frightening. It is so sad, such a waste, plus there is absolutely nothing to be done unless she herself recognizes something is wrong….naturally this is a simplification ….at this point it is impossible for me to physically experience her confrontations.
Re: Guess who’s coming to dinner. It’s been 3 years now that my sons were estranged. Holidays are a balancing act for me. I can’t have my two sons over at the same time. The oldest is the one who absolutely will have nothing to do with his younger brother. The saddest part of this story for me is that my younger son suffers from the same mental illness as their dad (my ex) does. Their dad is in a memory care facility with dementia. My son’s need one another, as their dad is dying. But, my younger son triggers his brother, as he does me at times. We’ve all done therapy, and my younger son is in DBT. But his moods still fluctuate quite a bit, even with meds. So, yes, holidays can be painful. But I love them both, and yet, I am so powerless to be able to bring them together. I look forward to reading your new book Shari! Thanks for listening.
Thank you for sharing this, Laurie. There are others who have adult children they must see separately. There are some sections dealing with siblings and this sort of thing in the new book. You’re not alone.