Teenage girl sharing problems with her mother.

Escaping the Family Trap: Practical Advice for Parents Whose Children Struggle with Mental Health Issues

By Gary Mitchell, MSW, LCSW, coauthor of When A Loved One Won’t Seek Mental Health Treatment

Being a parent is one of the most fulfilling parts of life. But it’s not all ‘rainbows and sunshine.’ When kids struggle with mental health issues, it can impact the entire family. The result is often a pernicious loop—with parents reacting to their kids, kids reacting to their parents’ reaction, and so on. The entire family can end up mired in a trap comprised of unhealthy reactions (emotional and behavioral) which wears the family members down further and makes them progressively more vulnerable to continued overreaction. Read on to learn a bit about The Family Trap, and how to begin escaping it.


It comes as no surprise that families are under a lot of stress. Parents are often overloaded by competing demands. They may be juggling their own issues (work, social life, finances, maintaining the home, exercise, health issues, mental health concerns, caring for aging parents) as well as caring for and supporting their kids (including teenagers and young adults). It’s a prescription for, well, overwhelm.

Feeling overwhelmed can erode our emotional reserves (emotional bandwidth). It chips away at our capacity to deal with stress and makes us more vulnerable to feelings of frustration, irritability, anxiety, sadness, and anger. We are prone to being less patient, to overreacting and engaging in myriad ways that can negatively impact those around us.

We parents know what can happen when our kids are negatively impacted by our own less-than-ideal behavior, right? They are more likely to be reactive—to be frustrated, irritable, anxious, scared, hurt, sad, shameful, or angry. They are more likely to act stubbornly; to dig their heels in when we attempt to help them. And, if that child has mental health issues, those issues are vulnerable to being exacerbated.

But it doesn’t stop there. Families too often end up stuck in a trap—a negative loop of unhealthy behavior and reactivity between parents and kids that eats away at everyone’s emotional bandwidth. This, in broad strokes, is a description of the Family Trap.


So, you might be thinking, “Now that you’ve painted this negative picture, what should I do about it?” Below is some practical advice.

First, you need to take care of yourself. This might seem counterintuitive. After all, you have a lot on your plate; people are counting on you. It can seem there aren’t enough hours in the day to meet

your kid’s needs, much less your own. It can feel as if you are constantly jumping from one crisis to the next; as if you are in a near-constant state of emergency.

So, let’s take a moment to talk about “emergencies.”

We define an emergency as any situation involving threatened or actual injury or death, or the destruction or loss of valued personal property. If the situation does not meet these criteria, it’s not an “emergency.” Of course, you may be inundated with significant problems, but we approach “emergencies” and “problems” differently.

Emergencies, by their very nature, require an immediate response. They are potential crises. And whatever can be done to avert a crisis should be done! If necessary, you might need to push beyond your normal limits; to “burn the candle at both ends.”

If you find emergencies arise regularly in your family, you will need a clear, step-by-step crisis plan to deal with them. This can take a lot of pressure off you and the rest of the family.

Fortunately, for the majority of families we work with, most situations that feel like emergencies are not actual emergencies. They are “problems.”

How should we deal with “problems?”

Dealing with problems can be complicated, but some of the first steps are straightforward (not necessarily “easy,” but straightforward). Initial steps focus on reversing your pattern of behavior that has resulted in chipping away at your emotional bandwidth. Instead of inadvertently feeding the Family Trap through increasingly frustrating attempts to change your child, you should focus your attention on what you have immediate control over—taking better care of yourself.

“What,” you might ask, “does taking better care of myself consist of?” The answer, of course, will be different for everyone. Ask yourself: What activities will help you reverse the cycle so you can begin recharging your battery again? Seriously! Take a few minutes to consider what this means for you. Talk to your support network. Make a plan to take better care of yourself. Do something different!

The other side of the coin is to adjust our interactions with our kids; to decrease our pattern of “minimizing”—which we define as “persistent and ineffective behavior, verbal or otherwise, intended to influence a person with a psychiatric disorder to change.” Examples of minimizing behavior include lecturing, nagging, yelling, pleading, criticizing, and prodding.

Minimizing behavior is normal; it happens in most families. Unfortunately, low emotional bandwidth makes us more vulnerable to minimizing. And, especially when kids are under stress, they are more likely to react negatively to that minimizing.

We encourage parents, whenever possible, to avoid power struggles, communicate clearly and respectfully, and take a break when they are vulnerable to overreacting. Practice taking a longer, strategic view of your kid’s struggles; be careful to differentiate “problems” from “emergencies.”

As a parent with a child who is suffering from mental health issues, frustration is inevitable. You might even feel, at times, there is no hope for your child to recover. But feeling hopeless does not make it so. Your first task is to begin escaping the Family Trap. And the first steps to escaping the Family Trap involve taking better care of yourself, as well as adjusting your interactions with your kids. The journey is long. The course is winding. And there is more to learn. But, as a dear colleague of ours is fond of saying, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

Gary Mitchell, LCSW, is a senior staff clinician at the Center for OCD & Anxiety-Related Disorders at Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute. He is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in the treatment of children and adults with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety disorders, and related problems. He is an original member of the Family Consultation Team at Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute, and codeveloper of FWBA.

Sign Up for Our Email List

New Harbinger is committed to protecting your privacy. It's easy to unsubscribe at any time.

Recent Posts

Quick Tips for Therapists