Author ORCID Identifier

Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Communication and Information



First Advisor

Dr. Alan DeSantis


Mental illness is a pervasive health epidemic in the United States and worldwide, and available data suggest that mentally ill adults are statistically more likely to be parents than non-parents. The prevalence and continued growth of parental mental illness means that millions of children in the United States have a parent with some form of mental health issues.

This dissertation contributes to and extends existing literature on children of mentally ill parents by exploring 15 adult children’s subjective perspectives on how they navigate the tension-wrought experience of having a mentally ill parent, and how this has implications for the management of their identity, relational, and instrumental goals. Examined through the lens of relational dialectics theory (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996) and a multiple goals perspective, analysis revealed that adult children of mentally ill parents confront conflicting, contradictory forces in making sense of their parent’s illness and the role that it plays in their lives. Specifically, adult children reported feeling a strong sense of interdependence with their parent and a desire to have a closer relationship with them, but simultaneously expressed a strong need and desire for disconnection and maintenance of a life separate from their parent’s challenges. Additionally, adult children noted conflicting goals with regard to privacy management about their parent’s illness, acknowledging that an underlying, but pervasive societal stigma surrounding mental health keeps them from freely disclosing to others about their parent’s illness, but indicating that a certain strategic degree of openness was required in order to meet certain instrumental and relational goals. Finally, participants revealed many fears and anxieties that they had about the future as a result of the unstable nature of their parent’s mental illness, while at the same time expressing a sense of acceptance and stability with the predictably unpredictable nature of their lives.

After presenting an analysis of the data, the implications of the findings for children of mentally ill parents are explored, including, but not limited to, how the results of this exploratory study could be integrated into therapeutic and support interventions for families of those struggling with mental health issues. Finally, the limitations of the study are addressed.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)