I often meet parents whose adult children who are suffering from a mental illness such as anxiety, depression or anorexia, or who are suicidal. When I hear these parents talk about how they're dealing with this situation, they often appear very stoic. They say things like “I need to be strong in order to support my son”, or remark that “I've told them that they are very strong”.

At the same time, I often notice my own feelings of emotional disconnection around these same parents during our interactions. They often talk a lot about themselves in great analytical detail but without much real emotional engagement, and rarely ask me about my own life or how I feel.

Empathy is the key to helping your adult child with a mental illness

I sense that they're avoiding something in our conversations: a sense of emotional connection.

Unfortunately these behaviors are exactly the opposite of what a person with a mental illness needs in order to feel the sense of emotional safety, love and support that could potentially heal their brain and help them through a time of deep crisis.

While all parents instinctively love their adult children, mentally ill people need to be surrounded by love and support that they can actually feel.

This means being empathic rather than being stoic.

As a parent, you are in a unique position to form a powerful emotional healing connection with your son or daughter. If you're not used to being emotionally vulnerable with your own feelings generally, this will mean changing your communication style and while that can be particularly challenging in an adult/child relationship, it's never too late to start.

If you have an habitual pattern of dismissing, withholding or avoiding feelings between you and your children, it's likely that there are many feelings about past events that need to be expressed and resolved between you. You were your child's first role model for the way emotions should be handled and communicated so if you were in the habit of internalizing or denying your own feelings around your children as they were growing up, then they may have learned some unhelpful lessons about emotions that you never consciously intended.

As a result, your mentally ill son or daughter may have a great deal of withheld emotion to express, and they could be unconsciously waiting for a cue from you that it's safe to go ahead and express how they really feel.

Mental illness is a cry for an empathic connection with you.

The more you adopt an attitude of stoicism towards your child's illness, the more emotionally distant you are likely to appear to them, and the worse their illness is likely to get. I've seen this dynamic play out particularly between parents and adolescents with generalized anxiety, depression and anorexia nervosa.

If you're not used to communicating on an emotional level, a good place to start is with some non-judgmental reflective listening. When your child expresses a feeling such as fear, anger, sadness, guilt or shame, you simply acknowledge it and reflect it back to them.

For instance if they say they are feeling anxious, you respond with something like:

“You're feeling anxious

Remember that the feeling simply needs to be acknowledged. Don't dismiss it, argue with it or attempt to fix it for them. Avoid going into problem-solving mode. Allow the feeling to be fully expressed, so it can dissipate of it's own accord. If your adult child has a history of suppressing, avoiding or internalizing their own feelings, this is likely to take some time. Be patient and don't expect a lifetime of unacknowledged feelings to suddenly dissipate within the first conversation.

When I do this with my clients on Skype, I can see their body relax as their nervous system releases the tension attached to feelings that they have held onto for many years. Teaching a person how to release emotions from their nervous system is key to learning how to master the strong emotions that underlie mental illnesses.

If your son or daughter is unwilling or unable to express how they feel, you may need to guess and give them the opportunity to clarify it for you. For instance if they appear angry or agitated, you could say:

“You seem angry”

Try to adopt a compassionate, non-judgmental tone to your voice so your acknowledgement of their feelings doesn't sound like an accusation. Many of us were raised to believe that anger is somehow bad, evil or wrong in some way: it's not. It's a normal human emotion that just needs to be expressed constructively.

Encourage your son or daughter to avoid judgmental labels and just stick to the raw feelings involved so you don't end up copping a stream of verbal abuse. It's good for someone to say "I feel angry with you"; you want to encourage this. You don't want to sit through "You're an asshole!" though. Let go of any negative judgements that you have about the way your son or daughter is feeling so that they can feel free to express their emotions in ways that don't hurt themselves or anyone else, including you.

Teenagers particularly are notorious for keeping their often intense feelings to themselves so if you've taken a guess and got it wrong, allow them to correct you and then acknowledge the true feeling accurately. Again, be patient. Even if they aren't willing to share how they're feeling with you now, the fact that you've expressed an active interest in your son or daughter's emotions will transform your relationship with them over time.

If you haven't acknowledged your child's anger in the past, it's likely that they have a great deal of anger bottled up; including towards you. This can be challenging to hear when you've been doing your best as a parent under difficult circumstances all their life, but once again: don't get into an argument about how your child feels. That's just likely to shut them down again and circumvent the healing process.

Bear in mind that the first time a person tells a parent that they feel angry with them can be an extremely frightening experience. Remember that it's not about you; it's about them being free to express how they feel, no matter how irrational or unreasonable it may sound to you. No matter how great a parent you have been, there will invariably be times when you haven't treated your child as well as either of you would have liked, and it's normal for them to be angry about that.

This isn't the time to argue. Just be willing to listen.

It's important not to convey a sense of blame or shame about unpleasant feelings. Emotions are a very deep part of our human experience, yet most of us are never taught how to master our emotions in a culture that is largely analytical and science-based. As a result, many people are uncomfortable with expressing feelings and can feel a great deal of shame about them.

If you have learned negative ideas or judgments about unpleasant emotions like anger, sadness or fear, now is a good time to rethink your beliefs so that you don't convey a negative attitude to your son or daughter about how they feel. It's bad enough to experience strong unpleasant emotions; being judged harshly for it just makes the experience even worse.

A person with a mental illness may not feel safe being open about how they feel, and you may need to lead the way by being honest about your own vulnerable feelings; including your feelings about their illness. Again, this can be a challenge if you aren't used to sharing vulnerable feelings with your children in a non-judgmental manner. No matter what your relationship has been like in the past, it's never too late to start building an empathic relationship with your adult children; and if they're mentally ill, they need this from you now more than ever.

Expressing your feelings of fear about your son or daughter's situation can open the door for them to share more of their own fearful feelings with you. If you are afraid that they may self-harm or kill themselves, you can say things like:

“I'm really frightened that you're going to hurt yourself.”

This may open the floodgates to an emotional response for either you or your child. Allow the feelings of love behind the fear to flow freely. If you're not used to doing this, it might feel awkward at first, but your discomfort will be worth it in order to help them.

You may also have a range of other feelings about your child's situation, which you may or may not be consciously aware of. You might feel guilty about whether your own behavior as a parent has contributed to it. You might feel angry about the impact it is having on both their lives and your own. You may even feel envious of the attention that they are getting from helping professionals.

The biggest challenge in having a truly empathic conversation like this with a person in deep mental distress is that their intense feelings are likely to trigger any unresolved emotional trauma you have from past events in your own life that haven't been fully healed. As a parent the emotional stakes are higher than in any other relationship so any pain that your adult child is in will bring your own pain to the surface. We can't truly empathize with someone in mental distress if we are triggered into overwhelm ourselves.

In order to truly empathize with your son or daughter experiencing intense emotions associated with mental illness, you need to heal your own emotional baggage first.

For example if you get defensive when hearing your adult child's anger towards you, this is a clue that you've got some emotional pain of your own to address. The feelings that you have about your son or daughter's illness will be magnified by any unresolved trauma of your own. You don't want to dump your emotional baggage on your mentally ill child though. Working through your emotions with your own therapist gives you a safe place to practice expressing your feelings without blaming or shaming your adult child.

Ultimately, what we all need is love. This is particularly true for a person with a mental illness. However the word means different things to different people and while I have no doubt that you love your child, you may not be expressing it in a way that they can feel is most helpful to them.

In my experience, love is best conveyed via an emotional connection based on the non-judgmental communication and acceptance of feelings, also known as empathy.

If you have an adult child with a mental illness and would like to learn more about how to best support them with empathy, contact me about coaching.

Graham Stoney

Graham Stoney

I struggled for years with low self-esteem, anxiety and a lack of self-confidence before finding a solution that really worked. I created The Confident Man Program to help other men live the life of their dreams. I also offer 1-on-1 coaching via Skype so if you related to this article contact me about coaching.