Parenting a child with mental illness can be a challenging and heartbreaking journey to navigate. Yet healthy communication is key to the mental health and wellbeing of everyone involved. Based on her own personal experience with her son, Kristen Hallinan shares 10 strategies to support and love a child well with mental illness.
I gripped my son’s hand as we sat on the therapist’s couch together. There was a layer of sweat forming between our skin, although I wasn’t sure if it was his or mine. As the doctor asked more questions, I could tell where she was headed. I had always feared this moment, although no amount of fretting could have ever prepared me for it.
“Have you ever had thoughts of hurting yourself?” she asked.
It was there, on that couch, I learned my 10-year-old son had been having thoughts of killing himself. I heard the words every parent dreads. His pain was so severe; he felt so desperate, he just wanted the hurt to end.
No Easy Fix
A single tear began to roll down my check, and I inwardly chided myself. Do not cry right now; there will be time for your pain later. This moment was about him.
I was desperate to alleviate his pain. My mind raced, searching for the words, the touch—anything that could take away the deep wounds he felt. Of course, there was no quick fix.
While deep sadness and a sense of panic threatened to overtake my mind at that moment, I was struck with pride as well. His bravery that day astounded me. Vulnerability about such tremendous heartache takes guts, even for an adult. “You are so brave. I’m so proud of you!” I told him over and over. The gift of his honesty wasn’t lost on me, and I wanted him to know what a brave thing he had done.
My son’s anxiety, depression, and ADHD were working against him. In the three years that have passed since his brave confession, we’ve healed, struggled, learned, laughed, and cried our way to healthier communication regarding the health and care of his mental illnesses.
Every child and parent facing mental illness will have a different experience. The following practices are what we have found to be most helpful as we navigate this challenging road together.
1. DEVELOP A CODE LANGUAGE
Anytime my son looks at me and says or mouths the word, “Pray,” I know exactly what he means. This is the code we have developed for him to tell me when he is particularly struggling with anxiety or depression. I know this means he is saying prayers for his own peace, and I immediately begin to do the same. In my heart I know that Jesus doesn’t want us stuck in the traps of mental illness. And I want my son to always remember that putting on the armor of prayer is our best defense against anything harmful in this world.
2. FIND THE RIGHT FIT
Not only is it important that your child can talk to you and your spouse about how they are feeling, it is vital they feel comfortable talking to their therapist and/or doctors as well. In order for the proper plan to be prescribed, you and your child need to feel comfortable being as honest as possible. As with any relationship, sometimes it takes a couple of tries to find the right fit. Don’t get discouraged or feel guilty if you need to try a new doctor.
3. GIVE THEM SPACE
Our son needs time away from the hustle and bustle of a large family when he is particularly struggling with anxiety. A loud, rambunctious game night may be relaxing and fun for the rest of us, but it only causes his stress levels to rise. I am embarrassed to admit it took me many years of forcing him through tear-filled family game nights before I relented and allowed him to build legos or read his aviation magazine in his own room. Game night might not be a sticking point for your child, but whatever it is they get hung up on, I encourage you to let go of any guilt over what you’ve done in the past and freely allow your family to try new rhythms.
4. PAUSE BEFORE GIVING A RESPONSE
If my son is having a meltdown, frustration and irritation are often my initial responses. When I remember to take a breath and consider what might be triggering his reactions, however, I am able to respond in a healthier and more helpful way. Is he exhausted? Maybe he’s hungry? Is he not feeling heard? Perhaps he’s feeling stressed or overwhelmed?
Remember, mental illness influences thoughts and feelings and sometimes causes your child to act differently than their heart would otherwise tell them to behave. If their reactions or actions seem disproportionate or counter to their core personality, consider if anxiety or depression may be playing a role. When you can attack the anxiety together as a team, you are free from wanting to attack the child over the behavior.
5. EMPOWER WITH KNOWLEDGE
Mental illness can feel confusing and much like an emotional roller coaster—even for an adult. A gift you can give your child through the journey of healing is an understanding of what is physically taking place in their brain when their emotional world feels so out of control. Our children’s capacity to understand is often much greater than we assume.
The age of your child will dictate the level of information you can give, but even the youngest of children can grasp the concept of an illness acting as a bully to their brain. An understanding of mental illness allows your child to know this is not their fault. You can also involve your child in the plan of care for their health through positive eating and sleeping habits.
6. GO FIRST
Studies have shown us that mental illness often runs in families although both genetic and environmental factors seem to play a role. For example, about 10% of the population struggles with depression. If one of your parents has depression, your odds of experiencing the same increase by 20% or even 30%. Trauma, emotional harm, and substance abuse all increase the likelihood that someone will face mental illness later in life.
If your child is dealing with mental illness in some form, you may be able to relate. Your vulnerability and willingness to talk openly about your experiences will likely inspire bravery in your child to do the same. Share about what it is like to pray about your mental health, visit the therapist, journal, take medication, or any other part of your healing journey.
7. GIVE THEM AN OUTLET
We were each created with purpose, and are at our happiest and most fulfilled when we are doing the work we were made to do. For kids, this work looks like growth in mind, body, and spirit. Over time, and following many failed attempts, we discovered outlets which helped our son relieve stress, form meaningful connections, and renew his spirit.
Attending youth group and volunteering at church grew his faith and became something he looked forward to all week long. Camping with Boy Scouts taught him grit and perseverance. We also found it was important to consistently incorporate a physical outlet into our son’s routine. Swimming during the summertime, and long bike rides during the fall and spring, gave him opportunities to clear his mind and improve his concentration, motivation, and mood.
8. GIVE SHAME NO PLACE
I’ve continued to fight my own insecurities as my son and I battle anxiety and depression together. I grew up in an environment that shamed any form of mental illness and belittled anyone who would seek help. But I want to leave a different, healthier legacy and be known as a woman who admitted her struggles and faced them head on.
I want to model acceptance and personal responsibility for my children, hoping they will be accepting of others’ struggles and take ownership of their own. In our home now, we talk about depression, anxiety, ADHD, etc. as we would any other health matter. My mantra has become, like I repeated over and over to my son that day at the therapist’s office, “I’m proud of you; you are so brave.”
9. FORGIVE YOURSELF
If you are like me, you might struggle with guilt over how you have responded in the past or consequences you gave your child before you understood what they were dealing with or before they were diagnosed. Friend, forgive yourself for mistakes you have made and march forward in confidence of Jesus’ healing power. There is no mistake too big for holy forgiveness and redemption; no crimson stain so large that it can’t be washed white as snow.
10. ANTICIPATE HOPE, HEALING, AND GRACE
Healing may or may not come in the form of complete mental and physical healing of your child’s mental illness. While I fully believe that healing is possible through the power of Jesus and gifted doctors and/or medication, sometimes healing shows up in different ways. Relationships that were harmed by mental illness may heal. Your family’s rhythm and ability to function smoothly may heal. The part of your mom-heart, broken by the suffering you have witnessed in your child, can heal as you find answers and solutions to their pain. No matter what form healing may come in, or the amount of time it may take, never lose hope in the One who deserves all glory to His name “for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23).
Good mental health habits are vital to our overall health. Utilizing these strategies, our family is now better equipped to process the bad days and enjoy more good days than we used to. Nowadays, when we sit together on the therapist’s couch, although I’m less surprised by what he says, I’m no less proud of his bravery. Yet, while bravery is a necessary tool in the battle against mental illness, this is not a battle we must fight on our own.
Remember What is True
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
Be encouraged by the truth that God sees and cares about the heaviness your heart carries as a mom to a child with mental illness. He promises to refill you with comfort as you continually pour out encouragement for your child toward perseverance and strength. Remember, you are never alone and there is always hope. And If you do need additional help, never be afraid to reach out—your school or church counselor can be a great place to start.
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