MENTAL ILLNESS AND ITS CONSEQUENCES FOR A FAMILY

By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. Four years ago my son had a nervous breakdown. He has since been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. His wife divorced him because he became physically abusive during an argument. They have a 5-year-old son, who has not been allowed to see his dad for the last three years, due to a restraining order by the mother, which included my grandson (although he has never been abused). My former daughter-in-law is financially stable and has a good lawyer, while my son is still barely able to support himself and cannot afford a lawyer.

My grandson is restless, angry and is already having problems in kindergarten. He can’t sit still and pay attention. He yells at his mother and does exactly what he wants to do, like going to bed at 9:30 on a school night. She loves him very much and wants him to have everything he wants in life. I feel her behavior is causing him to be insecure, and his actions are a call for help.

I tried to continue to be involved in his life, but have not seen him as much as I did (my husband as well) because his mother always makes it difficult by making excuses not to schedule visits — not enough notice, he’s going to a friend’s party, etc. I have told her how important it is to keep our relationship. She always says she understands and wants him to have a relationship with us, but does nothing to help us.

We have told her that we feel it’s vital to our grandson’s mental health that he see his father, and have offered to supervise any and all visits so our grandson would feel safe and be in a familiar setting. Nothing we say or do is working. We are sick about this and honestly feel the stress and heartache is wearing us down to the point that maybe we would all be better off if we gave in to her and stopped seeing him and stopped trying to reunite him and his father.

She says she doesn’t feel her son is safe with us (although when they were married he was with us at least once a week) and she says our son is too unstable and hasn’t changed enough that she wants him to see their son. I have told her he can’t change — this is a mental health problem that’s not going away (although he is getting help). I have told her all we want is for their son to have the best life possible, to be included as part of our family and to have a relationship with his father. She can’t see that her son is suffering silently and now overtly. What more can we do?

A. You are all suffering, and you’d all like it to stop. So you try to understand what is causing the pain and the problems. Inevitably, you end up blaming yourselves, and each other. But finding fault just leads to bitterness, misunderstanding and more pain. Deep down you all know that if anything is to blame, it is your son’s serious mental illness. That, of course, is no one’s fault.

If you could all forgive yourselves and each other, you might have a better chance of developing the kind of communication and teamwork that you know you all need. (When there are tough decisions to make that threaten to pit you against each other, a neutral third party such as a court appointed guardian ad litem for the child who would independently represent the child’s best interest might also help settle down the understandable tensions.)

Of course it would be best for your grandson for family ties to be preserved and strengthened, even while squarely facing whatever limits there must be to your son’s interactions with his son when he is unstable. Repairing your relationship with your ex-daughter-in-law will have to come first, before any hope of influencing your grandson’s life more directly.

You have been so strong and brave to face the realities of your son’s illness. No wonder you may need your own time to heal before you can understand his ex-wife’s reactions. Until then, see if you can hold off on attributing the child’s “bad” behavior to her parenting. She’s unlikely to feel that he’ll be safe with you as long as she has to worry that you are judging her critically, which may subtly undermine the authority she needs as a parent.

Of course the boy needs limits, and he may need more limits than he is getting. But the sadness and fear that sets in when a marriage ends often drains parents’ ability to tune into their children’s needs until they’ve had a chance to heal. Can you help her to heal as a critical first step to helping your grandson? She might feel that you could understand her side better if you could consider the possibility that her boy might be hard to handle for a number of reasons beyond late bedtimes and lack of limits.

How could he not be thrown off by his father’s violent behavior (even if it was never directed at him), the divorce and all of the family’s stormy feelings that have resulted? Or he might be showing early signs of threats to his own mental health, especially since these are sometimes transmitted genetically.

You sound big-hearted and generous, as if you can acknowledge his mother’s challenges. Can you take it a step further to let her know you can see and appreciate what she is doing right by her boy? She’s been violated and traumatized. So have you — by your son’s terrible illness. She’s lost her love, marriage and dreams for her future with her life’s partner.

You may feel that you’ve lost your son — at least temporarily — to the delusions and distortions of acute manic episodes. Are your feelings about this something you can share with her? Only once she believes that you understand what she’s been through, that you know she has the child’s best interests at heart, that you will support her as a parent rather than blame her, will she begin to feel safe enough with you herself to entrust your grandson to you.

We understand how close you feel to giving up, but we hope you won’t. We hope you have others in your family you can turn to so that you won’t have to turn away, and so that this little boy can have all the family he needs too. You sound like you have been such a critical support for your son — facing adversity together is the true test of family.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.