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Parenting a Child with Mental Illness

By Sarah Adams Permalink

I remember the very first time that I took my child into the emergency room to be hospitalized for his mental health. He was 8 and he'd just shoved me down the stairs. He came running down them after me. He was crying so hard. He looked down at me and told me he didn't want to feel this way anymore. 

We were lucky then. A brief stay in a child and adolescent mental health unit, medication and counseling were enough to keep him healthy for the next 4 years. 

In the last year he has been hospitalized over 20 times including a 4 month stay in a psychiatric mental institution for children, has cut himself over 100 times, and has attempted to end his own life 8 times. 

Parenting a child with mental illness is an isolating and exhausting journey. No one wants to hear what it feels like to have your child tell you that the voices in their head sound like screams from a slasher film. No one wants to know that the image of your child lying on their bed with their wrist cut and pitecheal bruising on their face from hanging themselves haunts your dreams and your waking hours. I don't blame them. As parents it's terrifying because it could be any of our children. Mental illness can strike any child. 

It's also lonely because we hesitate to tell others the extent of our child's illness. We don't want others to judge our child or to see our child as only their diagnoses. We probably won't tell you that one minute our child was sobbing and calling us mommy and begging us to take them home from the hospital and the very next minute they were lunging across the table at us in a rage. We'll carry those stories as a heavy burden alone. 

We are afraid of being judged so we won't admit that sometimes we are so so angry. We are filled with rage at our circumstances, we are stuck in the anger stage of grief over all the future dreams for our child, and sometimes we are even angry at our child. That last one is the one we're afraid to even whisper out loud. We know it isn't our child's fault but we are human beings with human faults and sometimes anger isn't rational. 

It's exhausting because there is no end in sight. Mental illnesses are frequently lifelong. I'm facing the reality that my child may never be able to care for himself. That despite his brilliance he may not be able to go to any college he chooses but only one close to home if he's able to go at all. My own dreams for my future are sitting on a shelf now gathering dust. It's not my child's fault and it's not mine but I'm too tired by this life to pursue them and their pursuit feels selfish. I'm working on getting over those feelings in my own therapy. 

Parenting a child with mental illness is also a terrifying journey. Every medication in the house must be kept under lock and key at all times. Anything in the house sharper than a butter knife must be kept under lock and key at all times. If you own guns the only safe option is to remove them from the house. You rarely sleep. How can you sleep when you check your child's room a dozen times a night to make sure they're alive? 

There's also the practical difficulties of parenting a child with severe mental illnesses through a broken mental health system. When I take my child to the ER because he's suicidal with a plan to take his life we may wait 3 or 4 days before there is a bed available for him. When a bed is available that bed might be 4 hours away from our home. The financial costs can be staggering between the gas and food and hotel stays. That isn't even counting medical bills. We're fortunate that our insurance covers the medical bills in full but that is not the case for everyone. Many families, mine included, find that a parent can no longer work. Your child needs constant supervision, there are almost daily appointments when they are not hospitalized, and you never know when the next ER visit will occur. 

The wait lists for therapists and psychiatrists are also often months long. While you wait your child goes without help. When you do get in to see a therapist there is no guarantee they will the right one for your child. A therapist that isn't a good fit doesn't help and can harm your child's progress. The waiting starts all over again. When you do find a therapist who is appropriate for your child the next challenge is if they have appointments available at the frequency with which your child needs them. 

There are no parenting manuals for parenting any children but there are books and friends and family we can turn to with questions for our children without mental illnesses. When I ask my child's psychiatrist and therapist how to validate my child's very real emotions while not feeding into their delusional thoughts and while also not eroding my child's trust in me I'm met with blank stares. That's my answer from the experts so I'm left to continue winging it. Winging it when my child's life is at stake is an overwhelming and daunting prospect. 

What I want everyone to know at the end of the day is that my child is still the same child. Despite all of the difficulties I spoke of above he still brings me joy. He still loves me and his brothers and we love him. He still sings like an angel. He's still brilliant and compassionate and has hopes and dreams like every child. He is still a person with worth and value like all of us. 

If you have a friend or family member who is parenting a child with mental illness there are things you can do to help. The first is to simply listen without judgement and without offering suggestions. Let them talk. Let them cry. Let them say the things they are afraid to say to anyone. Tell them you are a safe place to say what they need to say. Do for them the same things you would do for any family with a chronically ill child. Organize a weekly meal drop off or bring them a few frozen casseroles. Offer to come over and do a few loads of laundry or take their child to a movie. Continue to be a friend.
The author of this post wishes to remain anonymous. 


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