One topic that is hardly ever discussed among articles on parenting portals is that of “childhood mental disorders.” Often, the very idea of your own child being diagnosed with a mental illness (or admitting to you that they have it) is a nightmare for many, many a parent. And for some families, sadly, it becomes reality – according to the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine report, approximately 13 –20 percent of children living in the United States experience a mental disorder in a given year . That is one in five children – a scary number, made even more threatening by the stigma that comes with depression, bipolar disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, eating disorders and many other, similar ailments. The reality behind those numbers, however, is even more dreary and upsetting, since only one third of people with mental disorders in the US actually receive qualified treatment. The rest are forced to fight on their own, with little help and understanding from their dear ones – and, yes, that includes children.
One of the biggest problems when it comes to having mental disorders is the invisible, but nevertheless real wall of misunderstanding, fear and aversion that is built around you as soon as somebody beside yourself discovers that you are fighting a daily battle inside your own head. That applies to children as well – the lack of understanding and education about mental disorders is the main reason behind ostracizing, bullying, shunning the kids who are affected. Even the most helpful parents can make a faux pas; there isn’t much information on the internet aside from the quiet, fearful discussions on parenting forums which makes things difficult for those who try to search tips on being a better parent for their kids. This is the reason why I tried to compile a list of “dos” and “don’ts” for parents of children with mental disorders – and I hope that it will be useful to you, reader.
1) Be loving and accepting of your child.
This sounds like such a simple and basic thing to say, but so, so many parents start playing the blame game the minute they hear the diagnosis, or “I have (insert name of disorder here)” – either they blame the other parent or the child. Sometimes it goes even further and turns downright ugly – for example, when I started carefully hinting about my depression to my parents, they became absolutely furious and started scolding me about “acting up”, “being dramatical” and “manipulating them” - which was the worst thing they could ever say to me back then, at the age of 10. Make sure that your children know that they can rely on you and that you’re going to do your best to help them – otherwise, their trust in you will slowly start disappearing until it vanishes entirely. I cannot stress the importance of this enough.
2) Research, learn, process.
The key to understanding your child in this situation is learning the mechanism and nature of their disorder – the more information you get, the easier it will be for you to have ideas how to be helpful and how to make your child’s life considerably better. Get books from the library, book store, or Internet, read articles, consult with specialists, read accounts of others with the same conditions – every action counts, every snippet of information will bring you closer to your child and allow you to fully empathize with how they feel. If there is a parenting blog, or a board for people with mental disorders that you know of, join it – and don’t be afraid to ask others. In fact, inquire about everything, from the most serious questions to the ones you feel are silly or weird. Yes, it is a colossal amount of work, but it is something that absolutely has to be done – otherwise the understanding between you and your child won’t be complete.
3) Let your child know that you’ll provide them with all the help you can.
Find a good psychologist in your area, take them to therapy, talk about the things that help them cope daily. Ask your children, discuss the things that make them happy, learn about the things they do to cheer themselves up on a bad day, and be supportive. Mental disorders do not go away overnight, and their sufferers need a lot of support to just go through the daily routine that most people consider run-of-the-mill – which can sometimes be incredibly difficult and stressful for someone who has to find enough strength for even the smallest things. Give your children the literature that you find, too – it might be really useful for them as a tool to get behind the roots of their condition and might help them to understand themselves better.
4) Spend some one-one-one time with your kid.
Take them fishing, shopping, playing football, skiing, hiking, doing anything they like. Sometimes, a fun day outside can be immensely helpful when it comes to cheering oneself up, and it’s a great way to bond as well – they might open up to you more, and they’ll definitely feel safe and protected.
5) Be there for them in bad times.
Yes, your child will have bad days – complete with crying, shutting in their room, screaming, breaking things, or maybe refusing to talk to anyone. Understand that it’s not a run-of-the-mill tantrum, please, and make sure you’re still there and loving them with all your heart. It’s the best thing you can do for your child in that state.