The Tears of Childhood: How A Parent’s Chronic Illness Affects Their Child

Did you grow up with a sick parent?

Did you spend your childhood with a parent or caregiver that was periodically sad for no reason? What sort of effect did that have on you?

It is unbelievable hard growing up with a sick parent, especially one with an invisible illness such as depression. (An invisible illness is one that does not have symptoms you can “see.”)

My friend, Nikki, shared her experience growing up with a parent with mental illness. She talks about the cyclical nature of mental illness within families. You can read about it below.

Also, I am not a doctor or mental health professional. Just someone who has lived with anxiety for many years who is passionate about sharing her experiences and tips for success. If you are in crisis call your doctor, then click here for some good mental health resources.

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Nikki’s journey with a parent with chronic illness

I love my father. When I was small, the main trick that was used to ensure I ate my dinners was to sit me on my father’s knee when he came in from work.  If he was eating it, I was eating it.

My main memory of him is being surrounded by thing in pieces: hoovers, spin dryers, washing machines, and even their old Ford Cortina.  He was always fixing something because they didn’t really have the money to get someone else to do it, or to buy a new item.  Needs must, as they say.

Always in the forefront of my mind when I think of him is a photograph.  It’s a gorgeous summer’s day.  He is sitting on a deck chair up the garden, an old tatty pair of work jeans on, surrounded by my mum’s much used spin dryer. I would imagine he was repairing the belt or bearings. It is one of my most favourite pictures of him.  He’s smiling his big grin, and happiness can be seen in his eyes. Unfortunately, this is the last memory I have of him like that.

Being 8 at the time, my days were filled with Sindy dolls, mud, and running around the Close I lived in. One day, my dad returned home from work and he wasn’t his usual self. He sat at our tiny dining table with something I had never seen in his eyes before.  It was doubt.

purple background with white text that says "The Tears of Childhood: How A Parent's Chronic Illness Affects Their Child," a black and white picture of a sad dad being comforted by his son, chronic illness

How things changed

As the next few days came and went, he didn’t go to work.  He was a shell of his former self. Allow me to explain fully.

In the years before meeting my mum, my dad was an amateur wrestler. He was a big man, with hands like plates and muscles on his muscles. My grand dad was well over 6 feet tall, and my cousins in excess of 7 feet tall.  The paternal side of the family were BIG. The maternal side was big, but that was in a round fashion, and the genetic makeup that I inherited.

We used to wrestle when I was young.  He’d play fight with me, and I loved it! That
day, when my dad came home, he was an ‘Edgar suit’ (if you have seen “Men in Black,” you will understand that!).  He was shrunken, hunched, with no shining light in his eyes.

After a week or so of being at home, something happened that changed my dad forever. My big, huggy, wonderful father was sitting at the dining room table again, and he disintegrated into tears. It still makes my heart ache even now, over 30 years later, long after my childhood ended.

It wasn’t until I became older that I came to understand what had happened. Our esteemed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had decided to cut resources, one of those cuts was to close the Royal Dockyard in Chatham. Generations of families lost their incomes practically overnight. 

In my dad’s family, it was him, both his parents, all his brother and sisters, and some of their partners. It decimated the local towns, and so many became unemployed.  Some chose to take redundancy, and the others were sacked.

purple background with white text that says "The Tears of Childhood: How A Parent's Chronic Illness Affects Their Child," a black and white picture of a sad dad being comforted by his daughter, chronic illness

The next generation

If you think of Chatham Historic Dockyard now, it is open to the public, with various ships moored in the docks.  The ropery is still functioning, making some of the most exquisite rope for tall ships all over the world.  The back drop of the Dockyard itself is used to film “Call The Midwife.”  The worn weary cobbles are associated with Robert Downey, Jr and Jude Law when they filmed “Sherlock Holmes.”

It recovered. My family did not.

My father had suffered a breakdown. All the pressure put on him had broken him.
Never again did I see that glowing glint in his eye, the man I had once knew was gone. Even now, he seems vacant.  He retired 5 or so years ago, now. 

He has very little purpose in his life but to look after those he loves.

My children gave him happiness, but, due to the manner in which I was born, my parents were advised not to have any more children, making me an only child. When I was 19 years old, I had my son, and my dad flourished a little, running around after him, crawling round the floor, gaining back some of what he had missed.

When I had two further children, my own life started to be plagued by mental health problems.

My son seems to suffer with it too. His wife gave birth to their first child a few years ago, and their second recently.  Two little boys.  More joy for my dad, I would imagine. My son messaged me a while ago to tell me he is in therapy too, which is a good thing, because my childhood was wrecked by mental health. 

My children suffered because of my mental health problems.  I am hoping that, as he is dealing with it at the very beginning, his children will not lose the father they love to the horror that is depression, anxiety, PTSD, and domestic abuse.

The aftermath

The final nail in the coffin is that now my entire family is estranged. Even though my parents want contact with my children, they won’t speak to me. My daughters won’t speak to me because of a choice I made 8 years ago.  Luckily, my son reconnected 2 years ago, and I am extremely thankful for that.

My mum has popped up in my tale every now and again. I think she has suffered the most. She not only saw her husband fall apart, but she had to keep him, me, the home, and herself going.

When things calmed down she found her own rhythm, maintaining the home week in and week out, with only herself for company until I came home from school at 4 PM. She became lost in her own thoughts.  The routine has to be adhered to. Even now, her way is law. Dad must comply or face having a hard next few days whilst she calms down.

My childhood, plagued by mental health problems. My adult life, the same.

About the Author

Thank you so much for sharing this story about your childhood experiences with chronic illness, Nikki.  She is not longer blogging since publication, but I wish her the best.

chronic illness

I would love to hear from others.  Has anyone else had any experience with this? Feel free to share in the comments below.

Having a parent with chronic illness is such a challenge, but there is hope out there. We just have to keep sharing!

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Related posts about parenting:

Limiting beliefs- Why you should change the way you talk to your children

Raising Happy Kids: How You Can Foster Happiness and Confidence

Living With a Depressed Partner: How You Can Be Kind and Supportive in Difficult Times

Parenting With Depression: The Ugly Truth

22 thoughts on “The Tears of Childhood: How A Parent’s Chronic Illness Affects Their Child”

  1. I was adopted by my grandmother, who was disabled. I definitely learned to do a lot of things independently. I remember doing a lot of reading and riding my bike around the neighborhood.

  2. Kristine Nicole Alessandra

    My parents did not have any mental illness, but they both succumbed to cancer. However, I remember when I was about 10 years old, I suffered from a nervous breakdown because of a very fearsome math teacher. I was practically screaming, pleading not to go to school. I got over that eventually, but as an adult, I am now suffering from depression. I try my best to cope and not have this illness affect my relationship with my family.

  3. This got me sad 🙁 I am in my low right now with everything that is happening within me and things around me. I wish things are different right now.

  4. This is such a raw and honest post I love it. I had to deal with my both of my parents and their mental illness, and for a long time i resented my mother because she never got help.

    Now that I’m a mom, I try push through everyday and hope my mental health doesn’t become a burden on my boys.

    Tonyalee @

    1. Thanks for sharing! I take the same approach as a mom, and just try to explain it to my kids when I’m needing to rest or in a bad mood, so they’re not confused. Thanks for reading.

  5. Very powerful and profound.
    My mother has bipolar disorder, as do I. She was frequently depressed when I was a child and spent a lot of time in bed. I really did not understand why my mom wasn’t like the other moms. And now that I am a mother, I am very conscious of trying not to create this confusion with my daughter. It really can be a cycle, and its terrifying.

    1. My mom had depression too and I had the same thoughts growing up! For the same reason, I try to be as hands on as I can, but also explain to my kids why I’m resting when I need to. Thanks for reading!

  6. This is something I certainly worry about, and was the major factor behind me seeking out help, after hiding my mental health problems so well for many years, that apparently no one had the slightest clue.

  7. Mindful Mama Health

    This was such a sad but raw read. Thank you for sharing! I see this very often in my patients — children of chronically ill parents. It is so important to take care of ourselves in order to be the best parents and role models for our children.

  8. As a parent that suffers from depression this was a tough read. I tried to ignore my depression and tried to hide it. I have recently started to try to find help, as much for myself as my kids.

  9. I love how this story shows how troubles pass on from parent to child. Parents model the behavior their children learn, and not everything they pass on is sunshine and rainbows. This story was inspiring, in a dark way.

  10. This was a really sad read. I’ve only experienced a parent with a chronic physical illness which was much different, however I can imagine how painful it could be growing up with a parent with mental health issues as I am a carer for someone with them myself.

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