What I Really Needed to Know About Raising a Child With Mental Illness

Elizabeth Stone compared having a child to making the decision to have your heart forever go walking outside your body and I could not agree more as neither education or experience could prepare me for the emotions or challenges that come along with raising a child who fights through life with a mental illness. I myself have battled with mental illness for almost four decades. I have levitated to the highest highs and have just as quickly been sucked into the depths of darkest despair. I was hospitalized for my first major depressive episode along with my first suicidal attempt at the age of twelve and have learned to manage my illness though medication, lifestyle changes and a plethora of therapy. As someone with a degree in counseling from a top ten university I have extensive knowledge of symptoms, treatments, and edge cutting therapies and can recite DSM criteria in my sleep. As a therapist, I have seen and helped numerous adolescents who were battling extreme anxiety, mania, bullying, ADHD and even those on the brink of suicide. Why am I telling you all of this? It may sound like I am tooting my horn here, but friends the real reason I am writing this is to tell you exactly how ill equipped I was, even with all this experience, when it came to care for my own child and her battle with mental illness. It is also to reassure you that you do not need to have a mental illness yourself, a higher education or years of experience as a therapist to help your child. I promise you that you already have exactly what you need to support, love and bring healing to your child. So, what I am about to share with you are lessons from a momma who has both nailed it and failed miserably at times and most importantly lessons that I learned from my daughter which I believe saved her life.

Meet my daughter. 

My daughter, who is 14 now, has always been mature beyond her years. From a very young age she could detect when others were feeling down or anxious. Along with her intense intuition and empathy came extreme sensitivity to stimuli such as sounds, smells and foods. She would scream and cover her ears when a loud truck would drive by our house or when God forbid someone would turn on one of those category five hand dryers in the women’s restroom. There were times she would not want to leave the house and times she would be consumed by uncontrollable tantrums and crying spells lasting 45 minutes over a homework assignment. Other times she would be the calmest most serene child in the crowd like the one time we went on a fieldtrip to the apple orchard. 28 out of the 29 kids in her class bounced around while listening to the demonstrator talk about apple picking while my beautiful free-spirited daughter was six feet away quietly enjoying and examining a leaf with no realization that anyone else was around. As my daughter grew into her preteens her symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder, Anxiety and ADHD worsened. She managed to maintain good grades, however no one saw the suffering she endured every night to stay focused, solve a math problem or get words on a piece of paper. She began to realize she did not operate like other children for the first time and this resulted in devastating insecurities and worsened the symptoms of an already existent disorder. Getting out the door in the morning was an hour-long struggle of tears and pleas for homeschool every day for years. My gorgeous, artistic, straight A student felt awkward, ugly and hopeless and began to isolate. At the age of 14, when everyone was on social media my child turned off her phone for months because of the anxiety it caused. Things reached the worst one day after a therapist whom I deemed a “perfect fit” for my daughter told her that even if she felt this way forever that it was okay and that she was worthy. Folks, these words may seem encouraging and helpful but they destroyed my daughter. We got in the car and I asked her how she felt it went. My daughter had not cried in months and she screamed and cried in desperation that it was “not okay to feel like this forever.” She stated that she did not want to feel “like she wanted to die everyday for the rest of her life,” and she was absolutely right. This is one example of how my “therapist knowledge” got in the way of me truly seeing what was beneficial for my daughter. Thankfully, my daughter was brave enough (and also fed up enough) to be vulnerable and brutally honest. My daughter is now doing so much better. She smiles in the morning before she leaves for school. She does homework without tears and without being asked. She reaches out to friends and is open with me when she is struggling through her illness. There are still things we are working on; however, my child has life in her again. The day she fell apart and I realized that I may lose her was the first step in her journey to healing and my journey as a mom learning the best way to help my daughter. So here is what my daughter taught me:

Be there to listen when they are ready to talk. 

Many of you parents have probably experienced the “how was your day” conversation after work and school only to hear the informative response…. “fine.” Our children are rarely ready to talk when we are and eagerness to hear every detail of their day does not make them anymore eager or willing to share. Teens especially are consumed with insecurities, fear of judgement and self-doubt, all of which prevent them from spilling the tea (yes, I picked up some slang from my kiddos here) and especially with their parents. Pressuring your kids may only cause them to shut down. This is why we need to be committed to listening to our kiddos whenever they are willing to share details into their private lives. This may mean turning off your favorite television show when you just sat down to relax, postponing cooking, getting off social media or making that business call later. These moments for me usually happen late at night when the last thing I want to do is listen because I am tired out of my mind and all I can think about is laying my head on the pillow, yet these moments that our children are brave enough to share may give us the greatest insights into their lives.

Let your child talk openly no matter how hard the truth is to hear or how much you disagree. 

My daughter came to me with the admission that she had self-harmed and to this day this is one of the most heart-breaking things I have ever heard yet embracing this truth and taking it seriously was one of the most transforming days in my daughter’s journey to wellness. There are many statements my daughter has made that I utterly disagree with. She sees bumps on her face that I could not detect with a magnifying glass. She believes that her face (which I believe is the face of the next top model) is so hideous that she learned to put her mascara on in the dark and without a mirror. Your skinny, popular, beautiful, strong, funny child with the IQ of Einstein may truly see themselves as fat, awkward, ugly, weak, boring and stupid. One thing I did learn as a therapist is that you sometimes must treat perception over reality because someone’s perception is in fact their reality. Do I mean agree and say yes you do look hideous today when you know that is the furthest thing from the truth? No, but I would recommend validating their feelings as truth instead of negating, meaning that they do truly “feel” ugly even if they do not look ugly. We may not be able to solve all of our children’s struggle or re-frame their thoughts for them, but we can be there to hold them through these fragile times.

Recognize and point out your child’s strengths. 

The day my daughter told me she had self-harmed she crumbled in my arms sobbing. She told me that her greatest fear was disappointing me. In that moment my heart broke, but not because I was disappointed. My heart broke because in my daughter’s darkest moment and in her despair, she was worried about letting me down and the truth was the complete opposite. I have never been prouder of my daughter than in that moment when she was willing to be vulnerable and expose her shame. Brene Brown is a shame researcher who has done extensive research and written numerous books helping adults to expose shame and allow their true selves to be seen. Her success stems from the fact that this is one of the most difficult things any of us do yet my 12-year-old at the time was doing just this. She demonstrated more courage than I ever had at that age (and for many years after) and it was important to see past my fear and sadness for a moment to let her know how strong and brave she was for doing this.

Take your child seriously. 

One of the most common things I have heard from the parents whose children I counsel is that “they are only doing [insert blank] for attention.” They are only cutting…threatening suicide…sleeping around…doing drugs…acting out…saying they have anxiety etc… This is not an excuse to ignore your child, to give up, or to not take your child seriously. I have met one too many parents who have done this before their child took the bottle of pills, got suspended from school or gave themselves sexually to someone who was willing to give that attention. Oxford Living Dictionary defines attention as “the regarding of someone as important.” So, yes parents our children may very well be seeking attention…they may want someone to take notice of them…to regard them as important and they have every right to have this desire as do we parents. Most humans are embedded with the innate desire to feel significant to someone so yes this may be a plea of visibility and I plead for you to be the one they become visible too, because if you are not someone else who cares less will. They may be screaming for help in harmful ways because they do not possess the tools or means to know another way. As parents we can teach them healthy coping strategies and help them find healthy ways to achieve the feeling of significance and worth.

Don’t Say

Don’t say “It will get better” I know this is counter intuitive and you are thinking I have lost it at this point, but this is one of the things my daughter told me that caused her to feel the worst. Some mental illnesses are clinical and thus a life long battle. Many well-meaning parents and friends have said phrases such as “Trust God,” “Just think positive,” or “You have so much to be happy for” and I will tell you that these words are defeating and like a punch in the gut for someone in a depressive episode. Bear with me for a minute and think about the child with cancer undergoing chemo and vomiting uncontrollably. Imagine saying to that child if you just “Trust God” your cancer will be in remission…or I know you are puking your brains out, but you have a family that loves you, tons of friends and a big house to live in… “you have so much to be happy for.” Most of us would never minimize that child’s pain and yet we still do this with mental illness even with evidence that there are physiological components. So, what do we do and say? When your child is physically ill you hold their hair back when they throw up, get them a blanket, and make them soup. You don’t try to cure them with words because you know this is impossible. So, when your child is suffering from depression or anxiety why not treat it the same? Give your child a hug, rub their back if they will let you, make them a fun treat and let them talk. I know it’s hard to believe, but many times validation is more healing for your child then salvation. You can say, “it must really suck to have to deal with this” rather than “snap out of this” or “I’m proud of you for going to school today with the amount of anxiety you are feeling” rather than “well at least you have a lot of friends at school.” Hold them in the moment and meet them where they are at rather than trying to make it all go away.

You don’t have to be a savior. 

One of the most important pieces of advice I learned in grad school was that it was not my job as a therapist to “save” my clients. It is not healthy or in my ability to do so and most importantly it takes power away from individuals. This was such an enlightening idea and a game changer in the way I related to my clients. I saw so much more improvement in their lives when the power to change was in their hands rather than mine. This is all super, however I have had such a hard time embracing this same philosophy with my own flesh and blood. I mean as a parent it is our sole responsibility to help our children survive when they are little, helpless and dependent on us for food and nurturing, right? So, shutting off this drive and allowing ourselves to just sit and listen rather than give advice and solve feels so wrong. Next time your child says, “I feel sad” try saying” it sounds like you’re really hurting” rather than listing off fifty things they can do to pull themselves out of the sadness. As counter intuitive as this sounds this will make them feel validated and heard and they will open up to you more unlike in the example of the well-meaning but invalidating “50 ways to turn that frown upside down” checklist that causes them to become bored, frustrated, annoyed and crawl deeper inside of themselves.

Be an advocate. 

There are 800 students at my daughter’s middle school and most of her teachers, social workers, counselors, office attendants and door greeters know me by name. I have shot emails, made phone calls, spoke to the nurse a ridiculous amount of times and shown up at the front office. I initiated a 504 plan and had to explain to teachers how my child who appears beautiful on the outside is falling apart on the inside. One of the most frustrating conversations I had was with a teacher who embarrassed and belittled my already anxious and very insecure child in front of the entire class. My daughter got up to ask the teacher a question only to hear, “looks like someone did not do their homework.” This teacher did not see my child working the prior day from the time she came home until 11:00 pm when I had to force her to stop to get some sleep. She did not see my daughter bawling for hours through it and begging to continue so her teachers would not be disappointed as I told her that she needed breaks and that her emotional wellness was more important than coloring a freaking map. I’ll admit that I was pissed, however the truth is that many middle school teachers see hundreds of students throughout the day and there is no way for her to spend the needed time with my child to know her like I do. This is why I feel it is our job as our parents to help teachers see our children through our eyes, because no one else can or will.

Allow yourself to feel. 

As parents we often put our children’s need and feelings before our own. As a therapist I was taught to put the feelings I experienced in my office in a container to deal with outside of sessions. We may not be able to address our feelings in the midst of crises or as we support our children, however we still need to make time to acknowledge our sadness, frustration, disappointment, helplessness and whatever other feelings we experience. We need to be able to feel and express those emotions as carrying all of that along with your child’s emotions will eventually cause you to break down (take it from a type A, stubborn mother who found out the hard way).

Get support. 

Find friends who are going through similar experiences and who are supportive and non-judgmental. The last thing you need is Patty Pinterest telling you if you just cut out colorings, become more organized, put your child in more afterschool programs, pray more or go to more support groups (insert any other unhelpful and discouraging advice for the mom who is has tried all of these a million times and is on the verge of a breakdown herself )than things would be better. Please don’t misunderstand me…I love Pinterest and have done many of these things, some which have helped. What I am saying is that no matter how good of a job you are doing and how dedicated you are to your child’s well being it will not cure their autism, clinical depression, ADHD and so on. You need empathetic non-judgmental friends who understand that that the challenges of being a parent of a child with a mental illness requires more than DIY solutions, Pinterest hacks, nutritional plans and yes even more than prayer. Find friends you can fall apart with and also laugh through the chaos with…friends who will hold you in the darkness instead of trying to show you the light…friends who won’t judge you for having that nightly glass of wine or drowning yourself in escape reality television shows to maintain your own sanity. Most of all find friends who are vulnerable enough to admit that they don’t have it all together, gracious enough to forgive you when you forget to call back or have to cancel plans for the third time because your brain is at max capacity and all you can muster up the energy to do is crawl up your stairs to your bed for a nap. If you don’t have any friends like these join a local support group. NAMI and other organizations offer free groups for family members of those who struggle with mental illness. One of the quotes I live by is, “Every good therapist has a good therapist.” I am the first to admit that I will probably be in therapy for the rest of my life as I like having a safe place to go where I can unload the heavy burdens that I carry without experiencing the guilt of weighing someone else down. I highly recommend this if you do not have anyone in your life that you can do this with.


Most of us have heard the airplane analogy about how the parent should first put on the oxygen mask so that she will be alive and able to put the oxygen mask on her child. If she saves the child and dies herself, she cares for her child in that moment but then leaves them alone for the rest of their lives. We need to take care of ourselves first in order to be healthy and strong enough to take care of our children. I tell my client’s frequently that a car cannot get far on an empty tank. So, parents please go get the pedicure or massage, watch two hours of television, take a walk or get to the gym. Consider that doing those things are putting fuel in your tank so that it will be full enough to complete the journey of supporting your child.

Parents, I know we put a lot of pressure on ourselves and why wouldn’t we regarding the most precious things in our lives…our children. I hope if anything you will take away from this it is that you don’t have to be perfect; you just have to be present. No title, work experience, or ivy league education makes you any more capable as a parent to meet the needs of your child. Expert support and help are needed at times, however, remember that you are also an expert on your child. Remember that you already possess the gifts of time, attention validation, patience, empathy, and advocacy along with the ability to love your baby in a way that no one else can. This does not mean that your journey won’t come with extreme challenges, however it does mean that you are already equipped with all that is needed to conquer the road ahead successfully. You’ve got this!

Written by:  Stephanie Wollert

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