When I considered writing a blog post for parents searching for answers on how to help their child survive childhood mental illness, I had one person in mind to interview. That interview turned into a two-part series.
The first blog post was a crash course in pediatric bipolar disorder, and today I share parenting wisdom from a mom who has been in the trenches battling mental illness with her son for 13 years.
Rachel Foreman is a licensed clinical social worker and community activist. She began her career in hospice and acute care. When Rachel’s son, Matthew, was diagnosed with pediatric bipolar disorder at five years old, she saw the need for mental health care services because she knew that if she felt alone, then other parents must feel alone too.
Rachel started a local support group for parents with children who have pediatric bipolar disorder, and she began working in psychiatric hospitals. What she saw was the enormous gap there was in the quality of care available for children with severe mental illness.
Seven years ago, Rachel opened her own practice, the Acadiana Center for Behavioral Care. Her services include assessment and psychotherapy provided for mental and behavioral issues including anxiety, depression, grief/loss, mood disorders, relationships, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), among others. Rachel specializes in the treatment of bipolar disorder and grief counseling.
A Mother’s Voice
How do you capture a mother’s passion in words? It’s impossible. I can still hear Rachel’s voice in my head. I wish you could hear it too. I want to capture her heart and preserve her voice, but words are insufficient.
Words can paint you a picture of Rachel’s experience raising her mentally ill son, but you can’t hear the tenacity in her voice. You can’t hear the intelligence, and you can’t hear the love.
Today as you fill your parenting toolbox with seven valuable tools, I want you to pretend that you are in Rachel’s office, and you are having a counseling session. I want you to hear her voice in your head as she instructs you how to help your child survive childhood mental illness.
Here are seven tools to help your child survive childhood mental illness:
1. Take everything you know about parenting and throw it out the window because it doesn’t apply to your mentally ill child.
Rachel raised her first two children like most parents do—the way her parents raised her. This no-nonsense approach was effective with her first two children.
With Matthew, she used the same approach until he got sick. After that, it no longer worked, so Rachel had to fill her parenting toolbox with some new tools. According to Rachel, “You can’t parent a mentally ill child like you would parent your other children; it’s a completely different ballgame.”
Mentally ill children are wired differently than other children, so parents must find tools that appeal to their sensibilities. Parents must dig deep and think outside the box to tailor their approach to fit their child’s specific needs.
2. You should not hide your child’s diagnosis from them. If you withhold an explanation, they will come up with their own explanation for what is happening.
Over the years, many parents have asked Rachel if they should explain their child’s diagnosis to them. Rachel’s response is wise: “I always tell them it is important to tell them the truth. If you don’t, they will come up with their own explanation for what is happening, and it will probably be more like ‘I am a bad person,’ or ‘I just don’t belong.’”
Rachel also said, “I think it is very important to explain to them physically what is going on in their brain because it gives them hope that it can change.”
Rachel’s approach focuses on the theory that it is crucial for your child to know that this is a family disease, and they are not alone. You can explain to your child it is the mental illness that is causing them to do things that are not good, that they need to stop doing those things, but you will help them with that.
As Rachel says, “It is the parent’s job to protect their child’s self-esteem because they think they are crazy. You’ve got to tell them, ‘You’re not crazy, you’re not bad and you’re not in this alone. I will walk through this with you until we get you well, no matter what it looks like.’”
3. The middle of a crisis is not the time to teach a lesson.
According to Rachel, “Matthew’s doctor told me I had to set boundaries for him, but I would have to do it differently. The piece of advice that stuck in my head was that the middle of a crisis is not the time to teach a lesson.”
When your mentally ill child is in a crisis, it is not the time to assert your power and teach them about authority and what is right and wrong. It is the parent’s job to deescalate the crisis, help your child to calm down, and only then can you speak with them rationally. If you try to speak rationally while your child is in crisis mode, they will not hear what you are saying.
For Rachel, that meant when Matthew went in his room and slammed the door, she would sit outside the door to give him time to regroup. Once he calmed down, most times he would apologize, and she could have that teachable moment, assert her authority and assign consequences if that was necessary.
4. If the world “no” sends your child into a tailspin, quit saying “no” and reframe your response.
One trick Rachel learned throughout the years while raising Matthew was that the word “no” set him off, but if she reframed her response using the word “yes,” she avoided a meltdown.
Here is how Rachel did it: If Matthew asked to go get a pizza at midnight, she would say, “Yes, Matthew. This weekend we can go get a pizza.”
When he asked for a friend to come over, Rachel would say, “Yes, Matthew. Your friend can come over on Saturday.”
Reframing her response helped Rachel avoid a trigger that would send Matthew off into a tailspin. Saying “yes” reframes your response in a positive light that is not off-putting to your mentally ill child. The child can pivot without losing control.
5. Do your homework and grow a thick skin because you will have to advocate for your child until they are old enough to advocate for themselves.
As Rachel told me, “The doctor is the doctor, but you are an expert on your child.” If you do the research, it enables you to have the confidence to stand up to your child’s doctor even when they intimidate you. You learn to speak up when you feel like your doctor isn’t listening. You can remind him of a treatment tried by someone else that didn’t work, and you can inform them of a treatment option they may not know.”
One of the most important aspects of any treatment plan is finding the right psychiatrist. For a parent of a mentally ill child, it is crucial that there is a level of respect and understanding between the two of you. You and the psychiatrist should be playing on the same team with a shared goal of making your child as functional and content as possible.
Rachel says, “Get involved. This is not about being nice. You are fighting for your child’s life. Don’t doubt your gut, and if you have a doctor who doesn’t listen to you, find another one.”
6. Find other parents who have lived through parenting a mentally ill child, so they can assure you are not crazy, and you are not doing everything wrong.
Although there are many informative resources available to aid your journey of being a parent of a mentally ill child, there is no definitive textbook with a step-by-step guide. You will learn some lessons by trial and error. That is true for all parents. The important thing about finding other families that face similar challenges is that it has the power to make you feel less alone.
Raising a mentally ill child can lead to isolation. Your family and friends often do not understand the enormity of what you are going through. They dismiss your child as being bad or manipulative.
Finding “your” people—those who are in the trenches every day battling childhood mental illness—validates your experience. They get it. They know that you are not coddling your child. They know it is not fun. They know it is a life and death battle.
7. Every good day is a victory over the mental illness that wants to steal your child’s life.
Childhood mental illness is relentless. When you are in the trenches with your child battling for their sanity and their life, there are many bleak days when it seems like nothing will ever change. There is a natural inclination to believe that your child will never get better.
When your child does have a good day, there is a tendency not to trust it. After years with no respite from the hard times, you may believe that a day without war raging in your child’s mind is a fluke, so you stay on high alert because you are sure trouble is on the way again. You must fight the urge to feel that way.
According to Rachel, “Anytime we had a good day, and it was rare, we would high five. Every good day is a victory over the mental illness that wants to steal your child’s life. Even if you had 10 bad ones, when you have a good one, you’ve won. Hold on to those good days because that’s what will keep you going until you have more.”
For my last question, I asked Rachel about the one thing she wished everyone knew about childhood mental illness and the children who live with it. Rachel said, “When that child is acting out and laying on the floor screaming, they are not enjoying it. They are not having fun. There is no payoff for them. So many people look at these children and think they are being manipulative—like they are trying to get something. They act that way because they are so miserable in their own skin. It’s a problem to be fixed, not a kid to be fixed.”
Rachel’s son Matthew has told her he believes he got sick so the two of them could help people. Rachel applies her personal experience with Matthew to the patients she treats.
Rachel has a unique perspective because of her experience with raising her son, and it helps her help others: “I know how bad this can get and you can still get better. If there was anyone who I thought was a lost cause, it was Matthew. If we can get him better, we can get your child better too.”
I hope that Rachel’s parenting wisdom makes you feel less alone and reminds you that no child is a lost cause. If you are diligent and persistent, you will find the answers you need to help your child survive childhood mental illness. Children do not grow out of mental illness, but with the right tools, support, and treatment, they can become productive and happy adults.
The Families Helping Families networks are individual, non-profit, family-driven resource centers. They are a group of families, who, through their own experiences, promote advocacy and are committed to reaching other families who have members with disabilities. The term “disability” includes physical, mental, emotional, behavioral, and/or academic needs. This link is for the Louisiana network, but a simple search will help you find the Families Helping Families network in your area.
The Children’s Mental Health Network (CMHNetwork) promotes and advocates for the availability and effectiveness of high-quality services for children with mental health needs and their families.
The mission of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) is to promote the healthy development of children, adolescents, and families through advocacy, education, and research, and to meet the professional needs of child and adolescent psychiatrists throughout their careers.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) is the leading federal agency for research on mental disorders. Their mission is to transform the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses through basic and clinical research, paving the way for prevention, recovery, and cure.
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