As a mental health professional who has worked with children for over eight years, I have seen the toll that mental illness has on the whole family. Parents who are raising children who are struggling with their mental health are often tired, burnt out, and fearful. One of the most important things you can do as a parent is to stay healthy yourself. Taking care of your physical and emotional health will prepare you for the work of supporting your child through their recovery. Below are some of the things I have seen to be helpful to parents while helping a child with mental illness.
1. Identify Support People: Who are the people in your life that you can talk to, problem-solve with, and be honest with? Having at least one person you can talk to about what you and your family are experiencing can go a long way. Knowing you can be open and honest about your experience in a non-judgmental environment can reduce stress, isolation, and feelings of hopelessness. Some may be there to listen to you and encourage you, while others may be willing to give you a much-needed break by babysitting to provide you with space or coming to help you in a time of crisis. You will never know if you don’t ask. These people can be friends, parents, or siblings.
2. Build your Own Coping Skills: When we become stressed and overwhelmed, we often struggle to make the best decisions for ourselves and others. Knowing which tools and techniques are useful in calming yourself down can help in many ways. First, knowing that you need time and space to calm down and asking for it is an excellent way of showing your child how to do the same. Asking for breaks, walking away, and grounding yourself are all wonderful tools you can use to give yourself the mental clarity and stamina it will take to care for your child. The internet is full of grounding techniques and “how-to” videos. Hop on over to YouTube and type in “Mindfulness,” “Deep Breathing,” or “Muscle Relaxation,” and you’re sure to find a treasure chest of ways to practice.
3. Know your Resources: Knowing where you can go for crisis support is critical in navigating some of the more stressful aspects of raising a child with mental illness. Do your local hospitals have a pediatric psychiatric program? Does your insurance cover therapy for your child? If your child runs out of medication, where can you go to refill it? All of these are essential things to know and have documented in a safe place that is easily accessible when a crisis occurs. I encourage you to sit down and make a list of medical providers you are working with (names and numbers), hospitals you have taken your child to or can take your child to in a crisis, and a list of current medications. This can also be a handy tool for anyone who is babysitting or helping you care for your child, including the child’s school.
4. Be Kind to Yourself: Last but certainly not least, remember to have self-compassion. Managing a child’s mental health is often trial and error and takes a lot of vulnerability. You didn’t choose this for your child, and you can’t always make everything better. You may be working with professionals who are asking you to try new things, and that can be hard. Do what you can, be honest about where you are at mentally and ask for help with anything you can’t do yourself. Do your best to remember a time when you were successful in managing your child’s behavior and focus on the small victories each day.
Suzette Toscano, LMFT