How Do I Cope With the Guilt of Shutting People Out of My Life Because of My Schizophrenic Son?

Having a loved one with schizophrenia, especially a child, requires a lot of time, effort, and sacrifice. To care for an adult child with serious mental illness often means losing other social connections. A great deal of guilt, shame, and even embarrassment can accompany these changes. While shutting some people out may be necessary, it’s important to realize that you need some social support during this time. And when you do cut people out, you shouldn’t have to feel bad about prioritizing your needs and your child’s.

When my son was diagnosed with schizophrenia, it didn’t come as a complete surprise. What surprised me more and was more difficult than I ever imagined were the changes in my life as a result. Caring for an adult child with severe mental illness has taken a lot of my time and energy. I have had to cut people out of my life, at first out of embarrassment and later out of practical necessity. The ensuing guilt has been tough to deal with, but I have hope as my son works toward greater independence, that I can rebuild some of what I’m losing.

My Life Changed With My Son’s Schizophrenia Diagnosis

My son’s diagnosis didn’t come until he was 21. Kyle had finished a semester at community college and was living at home. I had noticed troubling signs since he graduated from high school, but I never dreamed he was schizophrenic.

Once he finished classes, Kyle wouldn’t leave the house. He wouldn’t get a job or hang out with friends. He became increasingly paranoid. He told me that he heard people talking at night. This terrified me. Ultimately, we got the diagnosis and placed Kyle in residential treatment.

Now, two years later, he still lives at home with me, but my life is completely different. We have been working toward his greater independence, but I have had to keep many of my old friends at bay. Even having family around makes me nervous. I never know what he’ll say or how he will react to people.

A few months ago, one of my oldest friends called to talk and I had to go after just a few minutes to take care of Kyle. She gave me a huge guilt trip about never being available anymore. She knew something was going on with him, but I was afraid to be completely honest.

I started to feel like it was just better to avoid these kinds of interactions. I kept thinking there would eventually be a time when Kyle would be better, or at least well enough that things would be more normal. I pushed people away with no explanation and alienated a lot of people. I feel terrible about it, but in some ways it has been necessary. I have to prioritize my son.

Coping With Social Changes With a Severely Mentally Ill Child

This story is not unique. When parents have a child with a condition like schizophrenia, their lives turn upside down. They tend to become isolated. Their world revolves around their child. Your life will change with this diagnosis, but feeling guilt or shame should not be a part of it.

These are somethings to do and consider in order to cope with your new life and the bad feelings that arise as you make necessary changes to your social network:

1. Realize You Don’t Have To Shut Out Everyone.

While you need to prioritize your child’s needs over some other people in your life, you do not need to, nor should you, shut out everyone. Studies show that social support is beneficial to parents caring for adult children with schizophrenia. Also helpful is practical support from friends, family, and mental health professionals.

Carefully choose the people to keep in your circle. Keep these people abreast of the situation. Invite them into your new life, but accept if they do not want to be a part of it. Also be willing to accept help and support from those who care and want to stick around.

2. Decide How To Respond to Critics.

You may not be able to manage as many relationships as you would without a severely mentally ill child. You also may not be able to spend as much time with those you keep in your life as you would like. This means you have to face those people who may question your smaller social circle and your limited time.

It’s better to face them head on than to ignore the issue. Develop a response you can give people that is calm, rational, and not apologetic. You get to choose what and how much you tell each person in your life about your situation.

For someone you’re not very close to, this may mean giving a simple response like “My family needs me right now, and I don’t have a lot of spare time.” You may want to provide more details to someone you are closer to, such as a good friend or extended family member. Give them as much or as little information as makes you feel comfortable.

Remember that it’s up to you how much to share and where to spend your time. You don’t need to apologize to anyone for your decisions or for prioritizing your child over friends, acquaintances, or work social events.

3. Acknowledge and Process Feelings of Guilt.

Ending or minimizing a friendship never feels good, even when you know it’s the right thing to do. Don’t avoid the inevitable feelings of guilt and sadness. Give yourself time and space to mourn the inevitable changes in your social life. It may help to reflect by writing down what you feel and why.

At the same time that you acknowledge these bad feelings, it’s also important to realize that they are not necessarily valid. Guilt can be useful for making needed behavioral changes, but we also tend to magnify guilt when it’s not appropriate. Cutting people out of your life to take better care of your child is nothing to be ashamed of. Allow those feelings of guilt and then let them go.

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4. Practice Self-Compassion.

There’s nothing like feelings of guilt to make you dislike yourself. Now is the time to be aware of how hard you’re being on yourself. Notice any negative self-talk you engage in and stop it in its tracks. These thoughts aren’t useful, nor are they true.

Practice being compassionate with yourself. Picture another parent in your situation. Would they do the same? Would you give them a hard time about it? What would you say to a friend in your place? You would probably be kinder. Use those kind words on yourself.

5. Prioritize Your Own Healing.

As a parent, you want to do everything you can to help your child. It’s especially important in a situation like this to remember your own needs. Limiting the time you give to other people is not just for your child. Use that extra time for yourself too.

Living with an adult child with severe mental illness takes its toll. Set aside time to be away from your child, to be alone or with friends, and to do things you enjoy. Consider getting therapy to help manage your own stress, anxiety, fear, and other mental health issues triggered by the situation with your child.

6. Connect With Other Parents of Children With Schizophrenia.

Studies have shown that parents of adult children with schizophrenia go through phases, including feeling alone, hopeless, and disenfranchised. Those who reach out to and connect with other parents in a similar situation overcome those feelings.

They use connections with other parents to communicate experiences, share strategies and approaches to helping their children, and engaging in advocacy for their children and other patients. Look for support groups for parents to build a social network that meets your current needs.

If you can move past the feelings of guilt, your new life with a tighter social circle can be just as rewarding as your previous life. Keep the people who matter, those who care and are willing to support you and your child. Let the others go, especially if they have nothing nice to say about your situation. With good treatment, appropriate social support, and your own good mental health, you and your child can build a satisfying new life together.