Being a parent is one of the most rewarding, yet challenging roles an individual can have in life. For all the love, joy, and satisfaction that children can bring, there can be bumps in the road that prove difficult, especially when faced with raising a child with mental illness.
The issue of mental health has become part of the national conversation over the past few years. According to research conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in six U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year. It’s also estimated that two-thirds of this younger demographic are not receiving the help they need.
What Does all This Mean for Parents Raising Our Next Generation?
Thankfully due to increased awareness, more information and research, an increase in available resources, and continued dialogue about the prevalence of mental illness in our culture, parents are more equipped to handle the challenges that accompany their child’s diagnosis.
A Look at Mental Illness Among Young People in the U.S.
According to NAMI, here are a few more statistics for young people and mental illness in America:
● 17% of youth (6-17 years) experience a mental health disorder
● 51% of youth (6-17) with a mental health condition receive treatment in a given year
● 50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24
● Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among people aged 10-34
● 70.4% of youth in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosed mental illness
A wide variety of different conditions are recognized as mental illnesses, however, the most common include:
● Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
● Affective (mood) disorders
● Anxiety disorders
● Disruptive behavior disorders
● Eating disorders
● Elimination disorders
● Tic disorders
It is not uncommon for a child to exhibit comorbidity; the occurrence of multiple conditions at the same time.
The Challenges Parents Face When Raising a Child With Mental Illness
From considerations about medication and determining a treatment plan to the social concerns and even backlash, raising a child with a mental illness comes with a unique set of challenges. This video showcases two families and their experiences living with ADHD and Tourette Syndrome:
A study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies (Mazur, 2017) highlights these common frustrations faced by mothers and fathers parenting a child with mental illness.
● Needing parenting support groups and advice about coping with their child’s behaviors and emotions
● Struggling to deal with unwanted input from strangers
● The safety and effectiveness of medication plus getting their child to take the medication
● Unpredictability in how and when symptoms will flare
● High levels of stress in the overall parenting experience
● Communication barriers that fuel frustrations
● Shame because of their child’s behavior in public
Dorothy O’Donnell, who’s daughter was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age five says, “Sadie is in a much happier place today — she has friends and many passions. Yet just when I think I’ve got everything figured out and we’re in for smooth sailing ahead, things change again. A long streak of stability will be disrupted for reasons neither I nor her treatment team can always explain. And I know we’re likely to hit more bumps in the road as she grows and matures. The jury is mixed about how kids with mental disorders like bipolar disorder and ADHD fare as adults. Some get better, others continue to suffer and can even get worse. My learning curve may not be as steep as it once was, but I don’t think it will ever end.”
Tips for Helping Your Child Live with Mental Illness
Says Fletcher Wortmann, author of Triggered: A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, “In caring for a child with a mental illness, your responsibility is the same as any other parent’s: to support your child, to lift them when they stumble, to guide them away from dangerous roads, to help them until they’re ready to strike out on their own if they can.”
Raising a child with mental illness comes with its unique challenges, but with love, and unconditional support, your child can live a happy and healthy life. Below are a few ways to help your child (and yourself!) should they live with mental illness.
Ensure your child is properly diagnosed and receives appropriate treatment.
In addition to showing your child the love and support they need, it’s imperative you help your child living with mental illness receive a proper and thorough diagnosis followed by a treatment plan by a mental health professional. This is perhaps one of the most difficult parts of the process, as it’s common for a child to exhibit symptoms from multiple conditions. Each illness is different, and thus the symptoms being exhibited can often be misdiagnosed.
Find a mental health professional that you’re comfortable with and trust so you can fully understand your child’s condition and create a treatment plan.
Dr. Bobbi Wegner, a clinical psychologist at Boston Behavioral Medicine says, “Mental health issues often are managed with some combination of medication and therapy, so having a solid team of specialists – from a psychiatrist to a school social worker – is crucial…Therapy is based on connection. At the end of the day, the patient is the consumer. If it’s not working, there are many other people out there who can provide more support.”
Process the diagnosis.
Once your child has been diagnosed, it’s important you understand your response and make sense of your feelings. It’s normal to grieve the life you had imagined for your child before their diagnosis. It’s also normal to feel a range of emotions, such as anger, sadness, confusion or frustration, but the best way you can make your child feel accepted and loved is to process the emotions so that you can fully be there to support them.
Keep lines of communication always open.
Demonstrate your acceptance and care for your child by always taking the time to listen attentively about how they are doing and feeling. Remind them that they are so much more than their mental illness.
Ensure that your home environment is comfortable and friendly for your child.
Attempt to keep your home calm and as stress-free as possible. Perhaps let your child decorate
their room so that it provides a sanctuary for joy. Experts also suggest having structure, organization, and a consistent daily schedule keeps frustration and additional behavioral problems at a minimum.
According to Stephen Wallace, the President and Director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), structure can be crucial to creating a low-stress environment; creating a consistent schedule provides stability and cohesion. “If we constantly change how we respond to kids [with mental health diagnoses], it’ll put them on edge,” Wallace says.
See support for yourself.
Seek comfort and support from other parents who are in a similar situation. Support groups either in your community or online are a fantastic place to vent, share information, and have your frustrations heard in a non-judgemental environment.
Consider getting support for your entire family
A child’s mental illness diagnosis affects the whole family, so family therapy sessions are often recommended as a way of opening lines of communication and helping siblings understand the condition further.
Constantly remind yourself and your child that they are NOT defined by their diagnosis.
Having a mental illness does not define a person, and is only a part of who they are. Focusing on your child’s talents, strengths and other valuable qualities will remind all of you that their mental illness is only one part of their whole identity.
It’s natural for parents to focus so much on their child that they neglect themselves, however taking care of your own needs is equally asimportant. In doing so, you’re ultimately helping your child as well. Dr. Wegner says, “Modeling good behavior, such as sleeping enough, eating well, exercising often, and seeing your own therapist is setting an important example for your child.”
Your Child, Your Journey
“My message to you is, never give up hope, and never stop encouraging your child to accomplish their own “optimal outcome.” It’s not going to be easy, and you’ll likely have to make compromises—but with your support and love I know your child can build a life, too,” says Wortmann about his experience.
Quite often parents are their own harshest critics. When faced with adversity, it’s easy to second guess your choices or lack confidence in your parenting abilities. Particularly when raising a child with mental illness, remember that like all parents, mistakes are almost always inevitable, but…
Be gentle with yourself.
Life does not always go as planned, however the most important thing you can do is to love, support, and accept your child, and remind yourself that in navigating your child’s journey, you are never alone. If you suspect your child may have a mental illness and are looking for support or resources, please call the NAMI Helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI or visit https://www.nami.org/.
You can click here to learn more about what The United Brain Association is doing by way of research regarding a number of mental illnesses and other neurological diseases. Also be sure to sign up here for important updates and to receive news about current and upcoming research projects!