When we get ill as parents, it’s inconvenient, but we push through the task of laundry, making lunches and helping with homework, usually with little complaint. It’s what we have to do, so we just do it. This is in our control. But when our kids get sick, we often feel powerless around being able to relieve their discomfort and sadness. Mental health in children and teens has the same impact, perhaps even more than you realize.
I say this as a parent who has been and continues to navigate this world of mental health as it pertains to my teen. I did a confession not too long about how hard the adolescent years can be, but compound that with mental illness, and it can often feel like you are on another plane of parenting.
In a world of social sharing I often feel isolated in this new realm of mental health when it comes to my family, my children, so I wanted to share with you a few realities I’ve discovered on this journey.
Mental Health Issues and the Reality for Parents
I wish I could say this was a short post, bullet points on what I’ve learned and what you should do. The reality is that mental health is a complex issue. These points are based solely on my experience with the condition we are dealing with. I won’t delve into the specifics of the condition as that isn’t my story to tell. Whatever the mental health issue you may be challenged with in your child or teen, hopefully some of these truths will resonate.
Fooled by the Good Days
When your child becomes ill – a runny nose, fever, irritable behaviour – treatment usually leads to an improvement. A change in your teen’s mental health may also visibly indicating something isn’t as it should be. As a parent it pains me to see my child suffer, living in hope that like a cold this illness will go away with the right treatment. And with treatment you will see positive change, a glimpse of the teen you remember. It’s these moments that can lull you into believing you’ve crossed that big hurdle and things are looking up, falling back into old habits and routines. Then it hits you like a punch to the gut, everything takes a huge step back or falls down a hole of disruptive and irrational behaviour, tears and fighting.
In reality your child’s mental health isn’t a single climb up from the depths illness to the sunny mountain top of wellness. The journey is a rough terrain with hills and caverns, swamps and gliders. And even though I know this, I still hold on to the belief that those bright moments mean we’re out of the woods. It’s a painful journey and a hard lesson to learn.
A Regression in Childhood
As parents we often pride ourselves on the progress our kids make in skills, seeing them constantly moving forward toward independence. It’s hard to witness but we know this is the path we should encourage. In some cases, a child’s mental health can feel like standing still or even a bit of regression. It can be sad and frustrating seeing your child struggle with the independence he or she once wielded proudly. Anxiety, fears, negative thoughts, and harmful behaviour often mean you have to introduce skills to your teen all over again or monitor activities that could once be left unchecked.
I know what you’re thinking. That’s our role as a parent, to take care of our kids when they are struggling, when they are lost or in pain. I agree but that doesn’t mean I don’t get frustrated by canceling holidays out of concern of my child hitting a moment of despair and running off without thinking. It doesn’t feel good to be the hovering mother monitoring the moments of solitude spent by my child. Being vigilant around items in the home, even placing them under lock and key. Somedays my selfishness kicks in.
It’s Not About You
It’s not uncommon for my family to jest about a cold, who brought it into the home and shared it with the others. Things don’t often happen in isolation. Your mind floods with questions: How did this happen? Why my family? What could I have done to avoid this? Why me, me, me. There are nights I sob and screen and toss these questions around my brain trying to find fault or justification.
But none of this matters. It’s not about me and I have to remind myself this often. It’s not about my pain, frustration, confusion, stress, sense of unfairness. Sometimes things are just part of our family makeup, something we cannot change but instead we learn to work within the new reality. We can’t change the past but we can influence the future. I do believe if society was an overall kinder place, we would cut down the risk of unnecessary pain and suffering many kids face every day.
An Invisible Illness is Still an Illness
One thing that makes dealing with mental health issues so difficult, whether it’s something you’re struggling with as an adult or something that impacts your child or teen, is the diseases invisibility. There isn’t an x-ray highlighting the part that is broken or a scan showing the problem shrinking from treatment. It’s hard to imagine your brain, your child’s brain, having this battle. This unknown makes people uncomfortable.
Not being able to point at something makes it seem like less of a condition. When my child was hospitalized, many visits ended with tears which were compounded by guilt. What right did I have for being so profoundly upset surrounded by families dealing with terminal conditions? By I almost lost my child because of mental illness. Just because you don’t understand something, just because you can’t point to the cause, doesn’t make it any less of a destructive illness.
What You’re Child or Teen is Dealing with May Not Be the Root
There may be outward signs from your child or teen that their mental health is suffering. That was the case in our family. Unprepared, we sought help to deal with the condition we could see on the surface but it became clear that this was a sign of a deeper issue. We, including the health professionals we worked with, were so fixated on the one issue that we were ignoring the larger underlying problem. It took months going down one path before we realized we were missing the bigger picture. Part of that was ignorance and part of that was an unwillingness to admit the breadth of a mental health illness that had permeated our family.
As a society we’re so entrenched in the belief that poor mental health is sign of weakness and failure, failure in parenting when the illness impacts your child or teen. Unlike other more visible illnesses, we’re quick to point a finger. This can lead to not being open to other possibilities when your child is ill, downplaying the illness as no big deal or assuming the issue is a matter of the child or teen’s change in attitude or behaviour such as acting out. Which makes matters worse. If we were more understanding of mental health and how powerful our brains really are when it comes to our reality, more people would probably get the help they need sooner.
Your Child’s Mental Health Impacts the Whole Family
You Cannot Handle It On Your Own
Those moments when you get a glimpse of the teen you know, when there are less emergency visits or sleepless nights or worry, you may feel you’ve got this under control. I’ve been there. But usually highs in recovery are followed by lows and they can come out of nowhere. As a parent you will always be your child or teen’s biggest advocate. Healthcare professionals want to help but many hospitals are not equipped to deal with mental health issues in the long term; they are a short term measure to help you through an emergency when it comes to your child’s safety.
Mental Health is a long term issue; some conditions may be lifelong. That knowledge that your teen is dealing with a condition he or she will struggle with for the rest of his or her life can feel overwhelming. If it feels overwhelming to you as the parent, imagine how that feels to your teen? I cannot stress the importance of getting outside help.
Look to the school to help with the impact this illness has on his or her education. Look to therapy to deal with the specific condition your child or teen is dealing with. Be open to medication as an option. And therapy isn’t just about your child. Therapy should involve the family since you all impact the health of your son or daughter.
Therapy won’t be easy either. Some days are a struggle getting my teen to attend and some sessions can be emotionally draining. But if we didn’t have this support put into place, I don’t know how hopeful I would be about my teen’s future. The balance of medical understanding with parent advocacy and support along with willing teen or child participation is a solid foundation.
Whatever You Are Feeling, Your Teen or Child is Feeling Far Worse
I’ve felt utter sadness, real fear, festering anger, and deep frustration during this journey. How are you not be impacted emotionally when your child is ill? Your child or teen may be feeling these very same emotions but probably even more. To hear my child talk about emotions as a physically pain, a burning or electricity on the skin that needs to be released (usually in a negative way), I can understand the desperation to make the pain go away. We get a bruise, feel a headache coming on, get a twinge of muscle pain, we look to methods to release it. But how to do you release your brain’s reaction to something? I try to remember this when my teen is struggling, dealing with the emotions I may be feeling plus the actual episode itself.
Review Your Habits
There has been a lot of coverage around the negative impact screens and digital media can have on the mental health of teens and children. That doesn’t mean that technology is the cause of mental health issues but it can contribute to overall health for your child.
We’ve always been a big technology family especially as the EverythingMom community is online and my day job in advertising focused on digital media and using technology to connect with consumers. We’ve had to make some adjustments at home, establish new rules around screen time, family time, bed time. All good measures even if you’re not dealing with a breakdown of mental health at home. The key to these new rules is applying them to all family members, not just the kids. We lead by example so stepping away from the screen more often in front of our kids will only illustrate the positive impact around this change. We’ve actually been spending far more nights reading, telling jokes and playing card or board games.
Dealing with a mental health issue within my family, especially with my kids, was never something I thought I would have to tackle. It’s one of those conditions ‘other families’ face. But looking at my seemingly together family I’m left wondering how many average families are also struggling behind closed doors? Why do we have to hide from the fact that life can be a struggle for our kids, that we don’t have the answer, that we have to make changes?
More parents need to talk about these struggles, the reason I’m sharing some realities I’ve faced recently. I want others struggling with similar situations to not feel so alone. Perhaps this as a sign that we need to start looking at ourselves as a society, how we treat and interact with others. A little less judgement, criticism, hate, guilt needs to flow in the world as our kids are now wading through it and being pulled under.