This week has been Children’s Mental Health Week 2019, with the theme of being Healthy Inside and Out. The awareness week has shined a light on some great resources for young people themselves, but as parents, what can you do to help your child through difficult times of mental health? How can you support your child if you are not sure what’s really going on inside their head?
Jess is 22 and currently studying to be a Mental Health Nurse. Her career path has been a direct result of her experiences from a really young age of complex mental health conditions. She has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and has experience of eating disorders and dissociation.
She regularly takes to social media to talk about her life and raise awareness of adolescent mental health. Based on her experiences, Jess has put together these tips for My Family, Our Needs on how you can support your child through a difficult time with their mental health.
A bit about me
As someone who has experienced severe mental illness my whole life, I have learnt a great deal of invaluable information for parents to help support their child. Whilst I speak from personal experience, I’m also training as a mental health professional and am accumulating both aspects of my learning into this. Please remember everyone is different and so often it takes time to get the parent-child dynamic healthy in terms of support.
Above all, I feel validation takes precedence. Sadly mental illness and invalidation seem to go hand in hand. The difficulty is, invalidating a child can teach them shame around their illness and its symptoms which often feeds into the idea of being a burden. This internalisation can be catastrophic and self-destructive. Therefore, reiterating that it’s safe to talk and that their feelings are valid is genuinely life changing.
Examples of invalidation are:
‘Everyone gets like that sometimes!’
‘It can’t be that bad, you’ve got a great life’
‘Others have it worse’
‘You just need to exercise and eat better’
‘You’re just being dramatic’
Examples of validation are:
‘Even though I have no idea how that feels, I can imagine it is very scary and isolating’
‘I am so so sorry you’re going through this’
‘That must feel horrible’
‘I can see how hard you’re trying’
‘Your experience is valid’
When someone feels safe and validated, they feel listened to and consequently more likely to open up. It is the fundamental base of communication which trust is built on. Very often, validating a situation with heightened emotions can help to pacify things in order to have a calmer conversation.
2. Be non-judgemental
I can imagine that one of the hardest parts of being a parent of a child who has ill mental health is judgement. Often with mental illness, comes symptoms that may not make sense or that may make you feel frustrated, embarrassed or angry. I know as a child, if I had been able to speak about self-harm or my darker thoughts to my parents, it would have meant the world.
Sometimes it’s tough if your child stands out or you disagree with their coping mechanisms and that can raise judgements. Please do your best to not articulate them to your child, it can push them away and make them feel ashamed or guilty. This extends to day to day conversations too, be mindful when voicing opinions that they do not seem judgemental, even if they have nothing to do with your child. Often hearing judgements can make them believe that you would hold the same judgement about them if they came to you.
3. Don’t wait for it to pass
There’s so many reasons that people wait to seek treatment for their child, whether it’s thinking it’s just puberty, a phase or attention seeking etc. Please know that the first sign of ill mental health should be taken seriously. Postponing treatment can be catastrophic as mental illness can spiral quickly. It’s important to show your child you’re being proactive in helping them and (if possible) let them have a say in their care needs.
4. Give them autonomy
Unless lacking capacity, anyone deserves autonomy with their mental health. If your child feels they need medication, go with them to the GP about it and see if it’s an option. If medication has been recommended and they really don’t want to take it, look into why and, if it is reasonable, discuss it with the GP. Obviously there are parameters to this and I am not condoning putting your child in danger, but smaller choices can be incredibly empowering and make a big difference in terms of feeling in control.
There is nothing more validating and powerful than a parent who listens to their child and advocates for them. Sometimes appointments, tasks at school or social situations can feel scary and overwhelming and these situations may result in your child not being able to voice what they need. Knowing they don’t have to do this alone and that you can speak for them and have their back removes a lot of pressure and is incredibly empowering for both parent and child.
When ill mental health can be so inconsistent, having consistency is key. Do not offer what you can’t promise and be as transparent as possible. If your child knows where you stand and that it will stay consistent ,it can be a great comfort.
7. Crisis management
Whilst this may not apply to all situations, it can be helpful to have a crisis plan in place. If your child experiences suicidal or self-harming behaviours, having an action plan ready to implement goes a long way.
For example, I have a crisis box under my bed. It is a decorated shoebox full of all the things that distract me in a crisis; essential oils, teas, Harry Potter films, a voucher for a massage, my favourite chocolates and so on. This will obviously vary person to person but can be a very helpful resource. Beyond this, if your child is in a crisis do they have a crisis team they can call? Do you need to take them to A&E? Having this pre-planned is so important.
Have they told you their triggers? Do you appear engaged when they’re talking to you?
These things can help to keep the relationship healthy. Identifying triggers minimises conflict at home, sometimes things can feel so clueless for a parent and that whatever they say is wrong. If you can notice a pattern in what escalates a situation, then you can learn to avoid it being brought up at the wrong time. When mental illness is so isolating, listening to your child means the world. It goes hand in hand with validation.
9. Don’t try and ‘fix’
At the end of the day you’re a parent, not a mental health professional. You can offer so much in terms of love and kindness which no other person can, but it may not be appropriate to try and fix the situation. Each person’s mental health is complex and individual and when someone is experiencing mental illness, the only place for treatment should be in a professional environment. Just as we wouldn’t administer our child treatment for complex physical ailments, we shouldn’t with mental health.
10. Look after yourself
It can be so draining and damaging for a parent to have a mentally ill child and can, as a consequence, have a knock on effect on your own mental health. You haven’t failed if you need to look after you too. Ensure you’re looking after yourself as it will benefit both you and your child!
Thank you so much to Jess for being so open about her personal experiences, you can follow her on social media if you want to find out more about her.
You can also catch up on the awareness week by following #ChildrensMentalHealthWeek