If your child has a mental illness, you might feel afraid, angry, or concerned. While these feelings can be overwhelming, research shows that you’re not alone in your struggles. In fact, up to 1 in 6 children between ages 6 and 17 have a mental illness, and treatment is available.
Unfortunately, many parents feel misguided or uninformed about how to best support their children. They worry about saying or doing the wrong thing, and they may not know the best resources or treatment options. Let’s get into how you can provide guidance, love, and healthy parenting.
Seek Your Own Support
Many parents find themselves consumed by their child’s mental illness. They spend hours Googling symptoms, researching psychiatrists, and trying to find viable solutions for change. Of course, this ‘all-consuming’ mentality makes sense because parents want to help their children. However, this work becomes quickly exhaustive.
Additionally, many parents blame themselves for their child’s well-being. Flooded by guilt or shame, they often neglect their own health to focus on their child’s. This is a normal response, but it can be detrimental to the entire family unit.
Although you are in charge of taking care of your child, you are also responsible for taking care of yourself. Just like flight attendants stress the importance of putting on your own oxygen mask first, you need to consider your well-being during this vulnerable process. Seeking support can come in many forms, but parents may benefit from:
- Individual therapy
- Support groups for loved ones
- Connectivity with your religious or spiritual group
- Reaching out to friends or family
Consider Family Therapy
It’s no surprise that mental illness impacts everyone in the family. To cope, family members often blame, rationalize, deny, or suppress certain behaviors. Family therapy addresses these common defense mechanisms. It also provides a safe and supportive environment for everyone to discuss their feelings and reactions.
Family therapy isn’t about assigning blame or reinforcing who is and isn’t right. Instead, family therapy reinforces the notion of coming together by:
- Teaching and fostering healthy communication
- Cultivating closeness and emotional intimacy
- Improving conflict resolution skills
- Providing solutions for addressing specific problems
- Strengthening the parental alliance
Maintain Consistent Boundaries
Boundaries have become a trending buzzword in the mental health space, and for a good reason. Boundaries refer to the limits, expectations, and guidelines a person has for the people around them. For parents, boundaries often indicate what they will and will not tolerate in the home.
If your child has a mental illness, consistent boundaries are essential. They inherently create a sense of predictability, structure, and safety. These benefits foster mutual trust and respect between both you and your child. All parents have different boundaries for their children, and you need to find what works best for you.
Boundaries can and should evolve based on the child’s development and maturation. Some examples of healthy boundaries related to mental illness may include:
- Refusing to do certain tasks for your children even if they protest
- Withholding adult conversations in the presence of your children
- Requiring that they complete specific chores around the home
- Prohibiting cursing or disrespectful language to other family members
That said, boundaries are only as effective as your ability to define and reinforce them. Setting rules without actually implementing them only creates a lucrative path for chaos, confusion, and manipulation.
Engage In Positive Reinforcement
Many people believe they need to punish their child’s unwanted behaviors. While this strategy can work, it can also lead to children becoming secretive, deceitful, and afraid of their parents.
Positive reinforcement is easy, but it’s also highly effective. It boosts a child’s self-esteem, and it encourages them to continue doing the things you want them to do! Some examples of simple positive reinforcement for young children include:
- Offering specific praise (I love that you did ____)
- Physical affection (hugs, high-fives, pats on the back, clapping)
- Emphasizing how proud you are of them in front of someone else
Older children may benefit from tangible privileges and reward programs. For example, if your child completes the dishes without being asked, you may reward him by letting him watch an extra TV show that night.
Be Mindful of Relapse Prevention
All mental illness ebbs and flows. Prevention, management, and treatment can mitigate relapse, but it’s still important for parents to plan ahead. Knowing the main triggers can help you feel informed and prepared. Common triggers include:
- Changes in the environment (new school, new home, etc.)
- Medication or medical issues
- Interpersonal stress with friends or family
- Significant life transitions (divorce, the birth of a new child, death)
- Developmental milestones
Remember that a relapse isn’t your fault. The best way to support your child is to remain calm, consistent, and loving. If you can be their safe person, even in the most trying of times, your child will learn and trust that things can get better once again.