On an annual basis, the Netherlands has 405,000 people with mental and/or substance abuse problems who have children under the age of 18. Due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors, children of these parents are at greater risk of developing mental health problems themselves. Yet these children are often an invisible target group for care and society.
“I was two years old when my mother was hospitalized for her bipolar disorder. She was away from home for almost a year. In the following years, my mother relapsed a few times,” says Florine (last name known to the editors). She is now 21 years old and studies in Groningen.
Only when she is about eight years old does Florine realize that there is something wrong with her mother. “She could act extremely cheerful, crazy or busy. For example, we were never allowed to wear shoes on the trampoline, and then suddenly she would jump in her heels.”
When Florine is ten years old, her parents split up. She continues to live with her brother with her mother. “I felt responsible for her medication. Sometimes I didn’t dare leave the house myself because I was afraid she would run off and do crazy things.”
Every other patient in adult psychiatry has children. Isn’t it strange that so little attention is paid to these children?
A psychotic and unpredictable mother
Between relapses, her mother is normal, says Florine. In good times, home feels like a safe place, but not during a relapse. “She’s just psychotic and unpredictable at a moment like that. I thought it was particularly exciting that she no longer looked like mom at a moment like that. Fortunately, there were often people who also noticed when she got worse and saw helped us.”
Over the years, Florine learns to recognize what causes her mother’s relapse. “As soon as she started telling conspiracy theories or illogical stories with a lot of untruths, I had to pay attention. I learned about what triggered her relapse and could therefore be on guard. I was afraid to share my own problems with her because she was worried. and it would make her less well, so I began to keep more and more to myself.”
A counselor never asked, ‘How are you really?’
Despite the profound experiences of her childhood, Florine was never offered help by the health professionals involved with her mother. “My mother was in treatment for years, but a carer never asked: how are you?”
According to Esther Mesman, health psychologist and scientific researcher at Erasmus MC, Florine’s story is unfortunately not unique. She is co-initiator of a new center for children of parents with psychiatric problems (or KOPP).
Child and adolescent psychiatry, psychiatry and obstetrics work together in this center to identify problems in time. The center carries out special projects to identify problems in the parent-child relationship or in children themselves at an earlier stage.
As a child, I didn’t draw the conclusion myself: my childhood was radical, which is why I now have an anxiety disorder myself.
“With this new center we hope to raise more awareness about this topic. Every second patient in adult psychiatry has children. Isn’t it strange that there is so little attention paid to these children? Children hear, on their own level, more explanations and also get the right help and guidance if necessary.”
Florine has been talking regularly with a psychologist since she was ten to get help processing her childhood. She says she is lucky that her parents offered support when she indicated she needed help.
“I recognize myself in the invisible target group. I was never offered help from my mother’s assistance, while the parent-child role in our home was often reversed. Back then it felt normal. I just had a mother with bipolar disorder and it got me to behave in a certain way. I didn’t come to that conclusion myself: the events of my childhood are drastic, therefore I now have an anxiety disorder myself. I think someone else should have done that.”
Although Florine usually only shares her feelings and experiences with her best friends, she also wants to help other children and young people with her story. “Few people are aware of how many families in the Netherlands this kind of situation unfolds. I hope to make this invisible target group more visible.”
Een hardvochtige opvoeding met fysieke straffen maken kinderen gevoeliger voor depressie. Lees hoe dat zit op Ouders van Nu.