Raising Children with Mental Illness
My kids are all adopted from foster care. I got my girls when they were five and six, and my son came when he was seven. They all came from abusive or neglectful pasts and have struggled with their mental health since before they first stood on my doorstep. And before you ask: Yes, I had been fully prepped on their family histories before I adopted them.
My son’s official diagnosis is Disruptive and Dysregulated Mood Disorder with PTSD flashbacks. He has a family history of schizophrenia and had been severely abused by his birth family. Last year, a prank pulled on him by another boy triggered horrible memories that my son’s mind had locked away. Now, he hallucinates. He dissociates. He hears voices.
I remember sitting in a counselor’s office, staring intently at a picture on the wall as my son told the counselor about the voices he heard and the things he saw that I knew didn’t exist. My son talked about a hand that came over our car and a shadow that came out of his bedroom wall. I tried so hard to concentrate on the picture so I wouldn’t cry. It didn’t work. When the tears began to roll down my face, I was careful not to make a sound. The counselor noticed, so he spoke reassuringly to me, “A lot of things can make a person see things that are not there.”
My son explained how hard it is for him to determine that these things aren’t real, because they feel real to him. He just wanted them to stop. The counselor thanked my son for telling him about what happened and told him he believed him. We went from the counselor’s office to the psychiatrist’s office, where my son had to tell the story again. I never realized how tired you can get from just listening. I was exhausted, and nothing was even happening to me.
Sometimes, I try to imagine what my son is going through, and I wonder if I could get up the next day if I were him. I honestly don’t know. My children are the strongest people I know. They keep going, despite anything and everything that tries to stop them. And I do my very best to help as their mother.
Lessons to Follow
Raising children with mental health conditions is challenging. Patience can wear thin, because you want your child to do the things you need them to do. Frustration can leak into your communication. Walls can go up. Instead of loving each other, you feel like you’re at war.
When I really examined my frustrations, I noticed a lot of my anger came from a place of shame. I wanted my kids to act “appropriately” in public. When they didn’t, I would get frustrated. I cared more about what others thought of me than what my children thought of me—but that was getting my family nowhere. It especially wasn’t helping my children and their recovery.
If you’re a parent raising children with mental illness, I want more than anything for you not to make the same mistakes I made. So here are some of the most crucial lessons I’ve learned about supporting a child experiencing mental illness:
• A diagnosis provides a roadmap to recovery. How can you start on a journey if you don’t know your first step? Understanding your child’s diagnosis is critical. This knowledge can help you find ways to cope. For example, my son went through psychological testing after his
first suicide attempt. His symptoms had impaired his thinking so much that he lost three grade levels of reading comprehension. That was crushing to hear, since we had spent several years working to overcome his reading disability. But having him tested gave us a game plan.
• Open communication is key. Make sure you’re not shutting off communication before you give your child a chance to explain how they feel. Don’t come to any conversation with the idea that you already know all the answers or how to fix everything. If we took all the energy we initially spend as parents trying to “fix” our children who live with mental illness and instead focused that energy on understanding them, we would get them the right help faster. It’s amazing the answers you can get and the solutions you can come up with together if you first start conversations with respect and empathy.
• Care for yourself, too. It’s called self-care. When I first heard about it, I laughed. When do I have time for that? I’m a single parent. I work all day and then my kids need me. But what kind of “me” do they need? A healthy one, a happy one, a supportive one. So, plan time for yourself. Find an outlet. Find support. I love walking, blasting music when I drive by myself, writing, painting, gardening and anything that reminds me I am alive. I now know that the best parents are like flight attendants: If we hit rough patch and the oxygen masks drop, put your own mask on first before you help anyone else.
• A family crisis plan is crucial. I learned in NAMI Family-to-Family that a mental health crisis plan needs to be in place before your family is in crisis. So, on a calm day, I asked each of my kids what we should we do if we have another mental health crisis. Their responses, to this day, are some of the most insightful and caring suggestions I have ever heard. My oldest daughter wanted consequences for someone not following family rules or hurting others. My middle daughter wanted us to “talk things out if things get bad.” My son’s contribution was that he wanted everyone to be kind. It’s funny; as parents, we have the answers if we just ask questions and listen.
Be the Reason Your Child Gets Help
Acceptance is the first step for a person’s mental health recovery. Self-acceptance is important, but just as important is receiving acceptance from loved ones. Accepting your child’s condition doesn’t mean that you aren’t scared. It just means that you see the problem for what it is—not the person as being the problem. We must accept and believe our loved ones to start getting them help. If we don’t, we run the risk of being the reason they don’t get help.
We can’t discount or ignore our loved ones’ thoughts, feelings and behaviors just because we don’t understand them or wish they were different. We have to do better than that. We need to seek to understand their reality. We need to truly listen to what they say. Do not listen to speak or refute, but listen to understand.
As parents, we must be open. We must be open to all there is to learn—even when something scares us. If we are open, then those living with mental illness (including our own children) have a chance. How many people are out there right now feeling alone, struggling with the fear of rejection from the ones they love because they hear voices or see hallucinations? How many are alone and feeling lost, but are more afraid of losing the ones they love than dealing with their mental anguish?
I remember thinking how simple and matter-of-fact my son’s counselor was when he said those three simple words, “I believe you.” I also remember how relieved my son seemed after he heard them. Odds are, your children won’t go to a counselor when they first feel something isn’t quite right. They’ll come to you. So please, stay open and believe them. Believe them so they don’t have to be alone. Believe them so they can get help. Believing may save their lives.
Melinda Cook is a 43-year-old single parent of three. Before she became a foster mother, she worked for a shelter for abused women and children. She is now a Certified Family Support Partner through the Department of Health and Welfare for The Family Resource Center in Idaho Falls, Idaho, a local counseling company. She began writing about her son’s experiences to help others and writes a blog at myfamilyunbottled.weebly.com.
This week, October 7–13, 2018, is Mental Illness Awareness Week
We will be featuring mental health journeys all week long.
Note: This was originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of NAMI Advocate.
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