Tips for Parenting a Child with Mental Illness

Mental health in children is a highly controversial subject. With the rise in number of children diagnosed with mental health conditions, a debate about the necessity of these diagnoses has risen as well.

Tips for Parenting a Child with Mental Illness

Some claim that contemporary medicine over-diagnoses mental health disorders, to a point where some kids wrongfully carry a label that might harm them. Others see the rise in the number of children with mental health disorders as proof of improved detection methods and increased environmental stressors. Whichever side of the debate you are on, the bottom line is the same: more parents than ever grapple with mental health concerns in their kids. How can we, as parents or guardians, be there for our kids who were diagnosed with a mental health disorder?

What mental health disorders are common among kids? 

According to the CDC, the most common mental health disorders diagnosed in American children are ADHD, anxiety, behavior problems, and depression. ADHD, or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, is characterized by “inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.” For example, the child is easily distracted and has trouble focusing on tasks, cannot process verbal instructions, cannot sustain focus to do schoolwork, and does not think before acting, feeling compelled to move their body even when expected to “sit still”. While this sounds like many children, the extent of these symptoms is well outside the normal range of “kids being kids”. Children with ADHD are often perceived as disobedient, socially inept or aggressive but since ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder, the child is not intentionally being difficult. Rather, an ADHD child has a brain that is wired in a way that makes it hard to meet the expectations of society. Imagine trying to run an electric car with no charging stations and the world being confused by why you’re not “just filling up with gas like everyone else”.  Between 2016-19, ADHD was diagnosed in 9.8% – almost 1-in-10 – of American children aged 3-17. 

Anxiety is not far behind, affecting an estimated 9.4% of American children. Different types of anxiety in children – like social anxiety, that causes the child to excessively fear judgement or criticism from their peers – are familiar to us from anxiety in adults. Other types are more specific, like separation anxiety, which appears as fear of being separated from a parent. (That is not to say that adults can’t experience separation anxiety, but it usually occurs in adults as a direct continuation of separation anxiety as a child.) A child might be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder when they don’t outgrow fears and worries that are considered typical at a particular age.  

Behavior problems (8.9%) are usually diagnosed when aggressive or defiant mannerisms are severe or atypical for the child’s age. Symptoms of behavior problems include quickly losing temper, being spiteful, and refusing to comply with adults’ requests. These disruptive behaviors are often displayed around adults that the child has established a relationship with, like a parent or a teacher. 

Last on the list of common mental health disorders in American children is depression (4.4%). Diagnosing a child with depression, and differentiating it from plain sadness, calls for heightened attention to behavioral changes. Depression is described as “persistent sadness and hopelessness.” A kid no longer enjoying things they used to enjoy for more than a few days or weeks for example, should raise a red flag. 

What can I do to help my child with a mental health disorder?

Listen to them and listen to yourself: With the rapid pace at which children’s behavior changes over time, mental health conditions are hard to diagnose. What kid isn’t irritable, angry, out of focus or sad at times? “On Monday, my kid was nervous about going to school, but by Thursday they seemed fine” or “the kid got up and started running around during dinner” are everyday scenarios, that shouldn’t automatically raise mental health alarms. Check in with your child about how they feel and listen to what they tell you. You know your child better than anyone, and you should trust yourself to pick up on abnormalities. Assess their behavior in different environments and with different people. Don’t be too concerned about day-to-day ups and downs but do notice bigger patterns of changes in behavior.

  • Listen to the people around you: Is your child unusually quiet when they’re at a friend’s house? Is your kid able to focus in class? Reach out to other adults who interact with your child, such as parents of friends, who might be able to point out changes in behavior. Speak with teachers and a school counselor to get a better understanding of what your kid is like when they are away from you. If you are concerned about your child’s mental health, talk to a primary care provider. If your child sees a therapist, follow up with them to stay informed on the progress of their treatment and symptoms. 
  • Be supportive (but not overprotective): This is important for any child, but especially one with mental illness. As their guardian, it is your role to provide a safety net and help them build confidence. Listen to them, be present and be available to talk and guide them. Don’t dismiss their feelings, even if your child sometimes sounds… childish. Try to validate their feelings first before swooping in to offer solutions or explain how their way of looking at things is wrong. With that said, don’t try to shield them from all problems and uncomfortable situations. Help your kid cope with their feelings as they come up. 
  • Help close gaps in school: ADHD may turn doing homework into a grueling task. Depression may cause a child to stay in bed in the morning. Social anxiety may make going to school an overwhelming task. Various mental health disorders can cause your child to miss school, which might lead to growing gaps in their education. Recognize that these seemingly everyday tasks are a challenge for your child, and work with both your child and their teachers to find ways to make them more manageable. When necessary and recommended by a professional, don’t hesitate to push for accommodations for your child with the school’s guidance counsellor or resource team.  
  • Find a passion and maintain a routine: Mental health disorders can lead to unexpected behavior and a disrupted routine, but it is important not to let the disorder guide your life. Encourage your child to find a passion. Find an activity that your child will look forward to, an activity through which they can express themselves (like playing an instrument) or that will help them release energy and tension. All other recommendations regarding a healthy routine apply here: ensure that your kid keeps a balanced diet, avoids fast foods and sugary snacks, goes to bed at a regular time and allows for enough hours of sleep every night. 
  • Don’t fall into the stigma: If your child was diagnosed with mental illness, treat it. Avoiding it and hoping that it’s a phase won’t help your child as much as treatment will. Education and communication are the cures for stigma. It is important that you take the time to learn about the mental illness specific to your child and speak with a professional about the best ways to support your kid. Treatment options vary from different forms of counseling and therapy to medication. If medications were prescribed, make sure your child takes them regularly. 

“Mental health disorder” is an incredibly broad term, encompassing anything from minor anxiety to lifelong psychiatric illnesses. Naturally, this guide can’t cover it all. If you are noticing behavioral changes in your child and think that they might be showing symptoms of mental illness, start gathering information from adults who interact with your child. Simultaneously, reach out to a health professional to make sure your child gets the best possible support. 

Lastly, do you remember the airplane safety instruction videos that tell you to first put the oxygen mask on yourself before assisting others? The same logic works here as well. In order to take care of your child, you must first take care of yourself. If you feel like you might be showing signs of a mental health condition, don’t hesitate to reach out to Antidote’s board-certified doctors working in our mental health service for assessment.

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