Parenting a Child with Mental Illness

If you’ve come here in search of helpful tools in parenting a child with mental illness, you are in the right place. Your child may be displaying symptoms of one or more mental illnesses or it might seem like typical teenage hormonal behavior to the untrained eye.

As parents, we don’t always have the answers. We are NAMI Greater Mississippi Valley – National Alliance on Mental Illness – and we are here to assure you that we can help and there is hope!

Learning to Help Your Child and Your Family

First and foremost, please know that early diagnosis is key to work toward recovery. And, yes, recovery is absolutely possible. Without treatment, mental health conditions often worsen.

If you have noticed a change in your child’s moods, behaviors and emotions, it may be time to get a diagnosis. Excessive worrying or sadness, uncontrollable “highs” and avoiding social interactions are examples of common signs of mental illness, though each illness has its own symptoms.

There is no test but a mental health care professional, such as a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist, can help. If that isn’t possible, consult your pediatrician or primary care physician. Sometimes, a social worker can step in and provide guidance. A second opinion may be necessary, especially if your healthcare professional’s assessment doesn’t match what you know in your heart. Always trust your instincts!

What to Do If You Notice Symptoms

Immediate attention should be sought if your child or teen speaks of seeing or hearing things that are not there (without the influence of drugs or alcohol). It could be a psychosis episode which may also include spontaneous violent behavior, denial of reality, paranoid statements, removal of clothing, reckless behavior that is also dangerous and/or claims of special powers.

Perhaps you are familiar with bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, but other mental illnesses are not as familiar to you. Click here for a full list and description of each but we caution you against self-diagnosis. This is a job where professional help is needed.

Many parents report the feeling of shame and anger because they want their children to act “appropriately” in public. Ultimately, you will learn that your children’s feelings are more important than that of strangers in the grocery store. That knowledge will also help you accept your child’s diagnosis.

How to Continue Helping Your Child

1. Educate Yourself

NAMI Basics is a 6-week, free and confidential class for parents of children and adolescents (and other family caregivers) who have either been diagnosed with a mental health condition or who are experiencing symptoms but have not yet been diagnosed. A nationally developed program taught by trained volunteers who have lived experience with children.

Now Available On-Demand.

Course topics include:

  • The biology of mental illness
  • The latest research, advances in treatment and an overview of treatment options
  • The impact of a child’s mental illness on the rest of the family
  • An overview of the systems of care for your children and adolescents living with mental illness

2. Inform Your Child’s School

In order to receive the appropriate care while away from the home, your child should be set up for success at school. Without this knowledge, teachers and staff cannot provide the appropriate care and attention. The additional struggle this might bring your child could lead to added frustration and stress.

The law is on your side. It’s required for schools to provide special services and accommodations to children with mental health conditions that could interfere with their education. We encourage you to learn more!

3. Work with Your Child

First, recruit your entire household to get involved to advocate for your child. Strength in numbers can mean a big win for the child living a mental illness. Even when it seems your child is working against you, try to remain respectful and understanding of their feelings. It may be easy to get angry but try to avoid it. Instead, set limits and discipline poor behaviors.

We acknowledge that this is a total reset of your parent/child expectations. It will be easy to expect or wish for the same standards of behavior from prior to the onset of their mental health condition, but it will only benefit everyone to find your ‘new norm.’

4. Take Care of Yourself & The Rest of Your Family

Parenting kids with mental health problems is often a family affair. Self-care is often overlooked but a very important step in the process. It may come with some lifestyle adjustments but try not to neglect other priorities in your life (including any other family members). That also means seeking help for yourself if sadness or anxiety disorders ensue.

Lastly, a family crisis plan is critical. These tips will set you and your family up for the best possible outcomes and will model healthy behavior for your child living with mental illness.

If you’d like to meet other caregivers in the Quad Cities and surrounding areas, check out our local support group.

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