By Gayla Grace
I was devastated when my oldest daughter was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at 5 years old. I struggled to understand her during her early years and failed to parent her appropriately at times during her adolescent years, but she emerged from her teen-age years successfully, with a determined spirit and resolve to help others on a similar path.
Mental illness is real. It shows up in the form of anxiety disorders, depression, ADHD, conduct disorder, bipolar disorder and a number of other diagnoses.
The National Institute of Mental Health says, “Mental disorders are common among children in the United States, and can be particularly difficult for the children themselves and their caregivers. Just over 20 percent (or 1 in 5) children, either currently or at some point during their life, have had a seriously debilitating mental disorder.”
Unfortunately, society often shames and disregards those struggling with mental illness. It’s easier for parents and teachers to deny a child is suffering than to confront it and seek support. But mental illness shouldn’t go unnoticed.
If you suspect your child is suffering from mental illness, seek help. It’s no different than asking for help with diabetes, cancer or some other illness. Here are a few tips on what to do.
Seek professional help and begin educating yourself. Start with your child’s pediatrician and ask questions about behavior that seems unusual. Learn all you can – you don’t have to have a medical background to begin to understand mental illness. You know your child better than anyone and can offer valuable insight with medical professionals. I was first told my daughter had ADHD but I suspected something different. As I continued to inform her doctor of her symptoms, the correct diagnosis emerged which led to appropriate help.
Let go of your guilt. It’s not your fault. Parents of children with mental illness are quick to blame themselves and hide in shame, but there’s no reason to take responsibility for a biologically based mental illness. Don’t feel guilty that your child behaves differently than your neighbor’s child. Good parenting doesn’t solve mental illness.
Break the silence. Talk with school officials, other parents and appropriate individuals such as spiritual leaders and community authorities to improve the situation for your child. Find a support group of parents coping with mental illness. Make an intentional choice to not hide in shame.
Don’t let it destroy your family. Support one another. Unite together as a team, educating other children in the family of the illness while being sensitive to your child’s feelings about the diagnosis. Don’t allow siblings to demoralize or make fun of their behavior. Help your other children understand their sibling cannot always control his or her behavior. In addition, stay calm in the face of danger or unusual behavior.
Let your child know you love him and will always be there for him. Children with mental illness need more reassurance than other children. They need to feel loved and understood, even on days when their behavior spirals out of control. Make your home a safe place and encourage your child to ask questions and express his or her feelings. We were careful to alleviate situations that might cause anxiety for our daughter such as leaving her alone or placing her in a vulnerable situation.
Keep an open mind about solutions. Don’t dismiss an alternative without exploring it. Stay educated of ongoing research to determine the latest methods of treatment. Seek others’ opinions on available options and try different methods. I was resistant to medicating my daughter in the beginning but her psychiatrist helped me recognize that counseling alone wasn’t enough due to her heightened emotions. After several months of counseling, she learned how to manage her anxiety and was able to come off the medication a few years later.
The impact of mental illness in children cannot be denied; but with the proper tools and education, more children can get the help they need to overcome its devastating effects and lead productive lives. A mental illness diagnosis doesn’t mean your child will never lead a normal life. I’m thankful to report my daughter recently graduated from college with an Early Childhood Education degree and is excited about her next chapter in life as an elementary school teacher.
Gayla Grace has a master’s degree in psychology and counseling and, as a freelance writer and mom to five children, is passionate about educating parents on mental health.