Teens and Their Mentally Ill Parents

Justine Carino is joining Of Course, They Make Me Crazy host April Norris to talk about teens and young adults living with mentally ill parents.

Justine Carino is a licensed mental health counselor working in Westchester County New York. She also has a great podcast called Thoughts from The Couch.

April says, “We’re discussing teens and young adults managing living with a parent who has a mental health illness like bipolar or borderline personality disorder just to name a few. Before we get into that, Justine. Why did you get into your line of work?”

Justine answers saying, “I think there’s probably two different layers to it. The first layer is I’ve always been really interested in why people do the things that they do, why they act the way they act, and the stories behind their lives and their choices. Everybody has a story. And once we start to learn that story, they make more sense to us. Right? Their decisions, the way they interact with their relationship styles makes so much more sense when we get to know their story. So, everyone has some kind of story. I’m so intrigued and interested in that. I think that was the first part of it. I started feeling that curiosity in high school. I took a Psychology 101 class as a senior. I loved it. In my mind, I thought  I’m going to be a psychiatrist. I went to college pre-med, and quickly dropped out of the pr-emed program because it was so scientific. It was so challenging. I cried before every test, I said, you know what? Let me still explore psychology in a different way. And I majored in psychology and went to graduate school to become a therapist after that. So, I had one route, but it turned to the other, and I’ve loved it.

And the other part of it is I’m an adult child of an alcoholic. I also come from a divorced family system. I think looking back also, I struggled with anxiety as a child and as an adult from time to time. But I think there’s also some personal layers to the decision to choose this career.”

April says, “And what you’re doing is now helping dysfunctional families essentially come back to each other. I think that that speaks volumes, and it’s huge. And we need so many of you out there.”

April asks, “Regarding the teenagers you treat … what is their biggest struggle? What do they come to you with?”

Justine replies, “The teenagers that I see that are seeking therapy, I treat mostly anxiety and depression. I also have a subspecialty in grief. I support teenagers that lost a mother or a father or a sibling. But also it comes down to family dynamics as well. I do a lot of family therapy. I’m looking at these unhelpful patterns between parents and teenagers that lead to conflict and kind of get them all in the room and unpack these patterns and understand why they’re happening and what we can do to correct them. But when we’re talking about a teenager that has a parent with a mental illness, there’s another layer to it. They might be dealing with different family dynamics because of their parent’s mental illness. There are a few things that are really challenging. One is that there’s a lot of feelings of shame and isolation, embarrassment and feelings of disconnection. When you have a parent with a mental illness, you may grow up with that mental illness, not really realizing that your parent was different in any way. But then there’s this moment as a teenager, you start to explore, like, Wait a minute. This isn’t so normal or something’s a little off here. And once you discover that it’s hard to share that with other people. As a teenager, as an adolescent, we are so insecure at a baseline, we don’t want to be different. Being different is scary for a teenager at that time of development. When you have a parent who might be different in mental health perspective, it’s hard to admit that and talk about it with your friends or your peer group. I think there’s a lot of shame that leads to isolation, right? When we’re embarrassed about something, we don’t want to talk about it. And when we don’t want to talk about it, we really pull back. And we miss out on a lot of opportunity to connect with other people because there are other people out there that can relate and can understand personally, when I started talking more about being a child of alcoholics, that’s when I built a lot more community and connections in my online space, people started to reach out and say, Wait a minute. I had no idea. And I love that you’re talking about this. My dad had this. My mom had this. My partner has this. I love that you’re bringing it into the conversation. I think shame and isolation is a big challenge.”

She continues, “I think the other part of it is a level of forced independence. When you have a parent that struggles with some type of mental illness or addiction, there’s a level of independence that you step into that you didn’t ask for didn’t necessarily want, and you’re often stepping into it pretty early. Teens resent this. It’s funny. Teenagers want independence, but if you give them too much, they crumble. They kind of fall apart, right?  So, it’s this middle line of how much independence is appropriate for a teenager, and sometimes they have to take on more. If they have a parent with a mental illness, they don’t think it’s fair that they have to do more. And they’re right. It isn’t fair. But I try and help these teenagers find the positive in this and look at the beauty of their level of resilience, the skills that they have developed at becoming more independent than peers at a young age and how this will help them in their future. Part of this is something called the parentified child. So, a lot of teenagers that have a parent with a mental illness take on an adult role. They kind of become a caretaker. In some ways, they are the mediator for parent’s arguments. They take care of other siblings. They might even take care of the parents at times. And that’s something that could be really difficult.”

 April asks, “So when they do open up, what are they saying to you? And how are you guiding them?”

Justine says,  I think the biggest take home is acceptance and accepting your parent’s illness. You don’t have to like it. You’re not going to like it. You’re not going to agree with it. You’re really going to feel like it’s unfair. But acceptance helps ease suffering. And acceptance lets you now deal with it, right? You’ve now accepted. This is the way my mom is, or this is the way my dad is. And I have to now react to this in a way that makes me feel okay or me feel good. And I think also acceptance helps people let go. And I think a lot of teenagers feel like they can control their parents mental illness, and they can’t. And sometimes they feel this level of responsibility. Did I cause it?  Was I part of this? How do I relate to this?

How do I impact it? And so they might take on some codependent behaviors. They might enable the parent’s behaviors. They might feel responsible for their parent’s actions and decision making and give up their own needs at times to take care of the parent’s needs. And that’s not healthy. So, we really kind of unpack the dynamic between the teenager and their parent and see where they can pull back and give up some control.  In the past, I’ve had clients that did excessive checking in. If they didn’t hear from the parent, their anxiety was through the roof. Is the parent drinking? Is the parent suicidal? Their anxiety was so parallel to the communication with the parent.  And once we found out new strategies of communication, it helped that teenager feel a little bit better and realize there’s nothing. No matter how many times I check in with this parent, I cannot control what they’re doing. I cannot take responsibility for what they’re doing. Letting go of control is huge!”

Justine adds, “I also think it’s important touching on developing connections with other adults in their life. Like other friend’s mothers, and part of that could also be aunts or uncles. It could be grandparents.

It could be cousins. It could be teachers or coaches. It could be whatever adult figure that is positive that

you can develop a relationship with can really help. Teenagers with a parent with a mental illness,

feel really angry about it and feel like they’re missing out on something. They could also gain a lot

out of other relationships that are really positive.”

 You can connect with Justine Carino at www.carinocounseling.com

IG _thoughtsfromthecouch_

Below is a link to books April thinks would be helpful for you to read or listen to if you’re feeling confused and hurt.


You can always reach April at ofcoursetheymakemecrazy@gmail.com

Or IG @ofcoursetheymakemecrazy

How Teens and Young Adults can manage living with a bipolar or borderline personality disorder parent

  • Of Course, They Make Me Crazy podcast host April Norris is talking to Counselor Justine Carino about teens and young adults managing living with a parent who has a mental illness like bipolar or borderline personality disorder

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