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Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me: Raising a Child with Mental Health Difficulties

One mother shares her reflections and insights in order to help other parents who might be struggling to support a child with mental health difficulties.
Raising a Child with Mental Health Difficulties
By: Andrea Gibbs

Raising a child with a mental health disability can be tough. I often felt lost or alone during particularly challenging times, and found myself wishing that I in some way could have prepared myself for these obstacles. So, I decided to list some of the things I wish someone had told me when I first started this journey. 

1. Ask for help - don't be afraid to speak up 

Asking for professional help when it comes to mental health can feel daunting, but you aren’t alone. A survey carried out recently by the CDC found that 1 in 6 children in the USA aged 2-8 years old had a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder - so there are lots of parents and caregivers who can empathize with what you’re going through. 

There are thousands of resources and mental health services out there that are accessible in many different ways, all designed to help caregivers and loved ones such as yourself.

Mental health professionals such as therapists and counselors can help your child cope with frustrating or difficult emotions. If you need financial assistance with finding a therapist, there are charities and helplines you can turn to for support.

Online or local support groups are also a great way for you to meet other parents who are struggling. Your child’s doctor will be able to direct you to the most appropriate support group. Doctors in these groups can give you advice tailored specifically to your child's diagnosis and development level. Meeting other parents who have been through similar experiences will help you pick up on certain coping mechanisms, and also create a bond that could turn into a fantastic community of support that you can turn to whenever things get complicated.

You are not alone. There is comfort in knowing that your child's mental health issue does not define their future. It only represents part of who they are today. It also doesn't determine who you are or what your role as a caregiver or parent means. Your child is capable of so much more than what their mental health struggle hinders them from achieving, and so are you.

2. Learn how to react 

Learn how to react 

When a child is struggling with their mental health, they’ll often pick up on signs that their condition is impacting other family members - their primary caregiver in particular. This can make them feel like a burden, sometimes worsening their well-being. It’s helpful to keep a note of what phrases or reactions are triggering for your child - part of the process is learning what not to say.

But the best way to reduce the chances of your child feeling like a burden is to focus on your own well-being. Get enough sleep, eat properly, and create an exercise routine - having this balance will mean you have the emotional energy and resources to look after your child without them picking up on the fact that you are upset, wiped out, or exhausted. 

You can't pour from an empty cup. The road to helping your child or adolescent manage their emotions or behaviors starts with self-care. Adjust your oxygen mask before putting on your child’s, as it were.

3. Remember: you didn't cause the mental health condition 

Parents and loved ones have a natural tendency to feel guilty when facing a diagnosis. I know it can be hard to believe, but the truth is that your child's diagnosis is not something you are responsible for, and it certainly isn't your fault.

No one would blame you for feeling guilty about an illness you have no control over. Your child has a condition, not a character flaw.

Your child's brain biology is responsible for much of their mood and behavior. Some people might think that if a child has a mental health condition, it means they have been raised poorly and deserve their diagnosis. This is a dangerous, false stereotype that could not be more wrong. 

Of course our environment affects how our brains develop, but so do many factors that are completely outside of our control, such as genetics and brain chemistry. For all the hard work they do to raise their kids, parents and loved ones should be praised for it - not blamed when things go wrong. Surround yourself with people who are not judgemental. 

4. Practice patience 

Practice patience 

If your child was recently diagnosed, you might feel like you're hitting a wall, and be tempted to ‘fix’ everything at once.

But having a mental health disorder is not like suffering with a broken leg. Although the desperation you may feel as a parent or primary caregiver to immediately mend the wound can be overwhelming, try to come to terms with the fact that the mental health disorder is most likely going to be a long-term condition that you need to create a management plan for, just like you would for a long-term physical health condition such as arthritis.

But coming up with a plan and adjusting it when necessary takes patience. Diagnoses will indeed differ from one person to another. As a result, treatment will also vary. Some adolescents or children might need medications, while others might benefit from therapy - there’s no one size fits all. It’s also important to find a doctor or pediatrician that your child can trust, otherwise they are unlikely to respond to help. It can take a while to find the right primary mental health professional, and that’s okay.

It is essential to know as much as you can about your child's mental health condition in order to help them, but sometimes you may be stumped. You or the professional may simply need time to find the answers, and that’s okay. Be patient with yourself, and the process.

5. Your child feels everything you feel 

Raising a child with a mental health difficulty is hard, but there is hope.

Your child will be experiencing a range of difficult emotions throughout their mental health journey. They might also be feeling the same feelings as you. It is essential to talk about what you are feeling throughout the process of helping your child manage their condition.

Discussing your emotions with your child can help them see that they are not alone in what they are feeling. Just make sure you use age-appropriate language and keep it simple by sticking to one or two feelings at a time. For example, if you say things like "I'm scared because I don't know what comes next for us with this new diagnosis," "This is overwhelming," or "I am sad because we are doing everything we can, and it doesn’t seem to be working," these kinds of statements can help your child feel less isolated in those feelings of confusion and fear. Sometimes that may be enough for them at that moment.

Role-playing different scenarios can be helpful when dealing with difficult situations. For example, if your child or adolescent struggles with social anxiety, going out to a friend’s house may be challenging - this is something you can role-play. Take turns being the caregiver and the child, and try out different ways of addressing each other's concerns. Eventually, every family member will feel comfortable communicating about difficult topics without feeling awkward or uncomfortable. Role-playing can also be fun and create light relief for the whole family in times of stress. 

Raising a child with mental health difficulty is hard, but there is hope 

Listening to your child's feelings and emotions can be overwhelming, but there are other parents and loved ones who will be willing to help you and support you on this journey. Many of them have been through the same struggles, and if they haven't, they will likely know a parent who has.


Andrea Gibbs is the Content Manager at SpringHive Web Agency, where she helps create content for their clients' blogs and websites. She is currently a blog contributor at Montessori Academy, a blog dedicated to helping parents with the ins and outs of parenting children within the Montessori tradition. When she isn't writing, she enjoys spending time with her family and her dog.

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