If your child is struggling with their anxiety or despair, life can feel very difficult for them and for you. And if your child is experiencing self-harming behaviors, or their perception of reality is off, or they are making unwise decisions, life can feel unpredictable and scary. But please don’t lose hope, as all mental health conditions can be treated.
Here are six ways you can parent a child with a mental health challenge.
1. Look for Changes in Behaviors
It’s normal for kids and teens to feel sad at times, particularly when going through a difficult life event such as a move, parental separation or divorce, or the death of a loved one. But when sadness or grief lasts for two weeks or longer and is accompanied with a change in behavior, there may be something more serious going on.
Here are some signs to pay attention to:
- Persistently sad or grouchy mood
- Self-critical statements, e.g., “I’m a failure.”
- Avoiding people and activities they once enjoyed
- Sleep and eating changes
- School avoidance or a sudden decline in academic performance
- Complaints about aches and pains
While certain behaviors are more common during specific developmental stages, be sure to keep a close eye on any behavior that seems particularly odd for your child. Pay close attention to your child’s behaviors, no matter how puzzling they may be. Ignoring your child’s symptoms is not going to make them go away.
2. Talk To Your Child Openly
Your kid or teen may have trouble controlling their mind or behaviors, and may feel very lost about what is happening to them. You can see this as an opportunity to open up a dialogue with your child.
Although your child may not be able to articulate exactly what they are experiencing, it’s important that they know they can come to you with any problem, and that they will be heard and treated with love and support.
As your child begins to open up, listen. And, then listen some more. Demonstrating active listening without judgment can increase the likelihood that they’ll come to you when they have an issue in the future.
Here are some ideas of what to do when they share:
- Let them know that you realize they are going through a hard time.
- Acknowledge the vulnerability it took to share by thanking them.
- Answer questions your child has and be honest about what you don’t know.
- Reassure your child that you will face these challenges together.
3. Practice Patience
When your kid or teen angrily pushes back at your genuine attempts to support them, practice the art of patience. I know, it’s not easy. It helps to be mindful of the words you use in response to their behavior.
For example, if your child has a breakdown, avoid telling them to just snap out of it. Be patient with them, even if their behaviors elicit anything but.
Mental health problems change the way your child’s brain works. It may take a while for them to manage big emotions or get over things quickly.
Practicing patience does not mean you should ignore disrespectful or unsafe behaviors.
Limit setting and consequences can and should still be imposed when necessary. Rather, what this means is to set realistic expectations of what your child can and can’t control in consideration of their current mental health.
Remember, they will get through this once they receive an accurate diagnosis and the right course of treatment. Since most treatments do not bring instant results, be sure to encourage your child to be patient with themselves and the process.
4. Show Them They are Loved and Valued.
One of the most important things you can offer any child is the assurance that they are loved and valued. A child with a mental health challenge needs to not only know they are loved, but they need to feel they are loved and valued.
Because of the increase in negative thoughts associated with many mental health challenges (depression specifically) a child in distress needs to know they are important and supported regardless of their demanding mood and puzzling behaviors. Affirm them constantly. Feeling loved and affirmed helps to increase a kid or teen’s sense of safety and security.
5. Educate Yourself
After following all of the above steps, you may still be confused by many of your child’s behaviors and not know what to do to further help. To minimize any confusion, educate yourself about your child’s specific symptoms. First, do some research first at your local library or review reputable websites, like CDC or NAMI, that discuss youth mental health conditions and prevalence rates.
According to the CDC, 1 in 6 U.S. children aged 2–8 years (17.4%) had a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder. ADHD, anxiety, and depression can become more common as your child ages. Both depression and anxiety tend to be higher in teens between the ages of 12 and 17.
By recognizing the symptoms your child is experiencing and finding possible treatment solutions, you will be more than prepared for what is to come.
6. Seek Professional Help
There comes a time when you need to accept that despite all of the knowledge you have gained about your child’s mental health condition, your family requires professional support. And, that’s OK. You cannot handle everything all by yourself, and you do not have the answers to everything. Consult with your child’s pediatrician or ask them to refer you to a mental health therapist.
A mental health professional can set up a course of treatment for your child and provide a plan to help them to cope with everyday life.
It can be scary not to know what is happening with your child. However, you and your child do not have to experience this journey alone. Once you gain a clear understanding of your child’s mental health condition and how best to cope with their symptoms, they can live a full and wonderful life.
Early intervention is key to helping your kid or teen to avoid potentially harmful coping mechanisms down the line. By getting your child the help that they need, you are doing your part as a dedicated parent.