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Are You Parenting a Child with Mental Illness? Tips for Parents

how to parent a child with mental illness

Mental illness can affect anyone, of any age. Although it’s an unfortunate reality, it’s estimated that 1 in every 5 youth (between the ages of 3 and 17) has been diagnosed with a mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder. If you are a parent with a child who is also struggling, know that you are not alone.

Of course, parenting a child with mental illness is not easy. It can be overwhelming, not to mention heartbreaking, to watch your child battle issues like anxiety, depression, stress, hyperactivity, or an inability to concentrate – issues that make their day-to-day life more challenging. Children and teenagers with mental health disorders sometimes struggle to form friendships, excel in school, or even find joy in everyday life. So how can you, as a parent, take steps to ease the burden for your son or daughter?

Fortunately, parents can play a pivotal role in helping children overcome mental health challenges, as well as preventing symptoms from getting worse. Depending on your situation, there are various strategies you can enact to help your child, which we’ve outlined for you below.

If you suspect your child is developing a mental illness:

Are you starting to notice some signs of a mental health problem, but are unsure what to do? Has your child been acting differently, in a way that’s raised some red flags? Here are the steps you can take when parenting a child with a suspected mental illness:

  1. Educate yourself.

The first step you must take as a parent in this situation is research. Understanding your child’s symptoms and possible condition will allow you to provide better support for your child, and to better advocate for their needs. Research your child’s current symptoms and the signs of various mental health conditions in youth. Know what other signs to look for in your child, so that you know if and when it’s time to get professional help.

  1. Talk to your child.

If you have an older child or teenager who seems to be struggling, do not hesitate to open up the conversation at home. Do so in a compassionate and judgement-free way, where your child will feel heard, safe, and supported. Ask open-ended questions like “How are you feeling lately?” and “Can you tell me about what’s been going on at school?” Find out how long your child has been struggling with negative thoughts and feelings, whether that’s sadness, worry, fear, anger, or something else. If symptoms have been persistent, professional treatment may be in order. 

  1. Schedule a mental health screening.

If you suspect your child is struggling with a mental health problem, a screening is always a good next step to take. A mental health screening is a preliminary evaluation that looks for potential signs of a mental illness, which may be conducted by your primary care physician, school counselor, or another clinical provider. Mental health screenings typically involve questionnaires or interviews to evaluate symptoms and determine if further evaluation is needed by a mental health professional. These screenings help in early detection and intervention, allowing parents to find the help their children need, when they need it most.

If you are parenting a child with a diagnosed mental illness:

Once you’ve confirmed that your child is struggling with a mental health problem, there are steps you should take at home—not only to ensure your child feels safe and supported, but also to ensure you and your family stay strong. In addition to the parenting strategies you implement at home, it is essential to get your child the treatment they need and deserve. This should be your first step.

  1. Find a mental health treatment program for your child.

Too often, children struggling with mental illness do not get the help they need. This can lead to lasting effects on their daily lives and well-being. To set your child up for a healthier, happier future, take the steps to find a great treatment program now. There are various types of mental health treatment for youth, including residential options (where your child will stay at the facility) and outpatient therapeutic options (in which your child would attend regularly). The best fit for your child will depend on the severity of their disorder as well as their other physical, behavioral, emotional, and social needs. No matter the type of treatment you choose, be sure to find a program that is specific to your child’s age group. If you have a teenager, for example, you should choose an adolescent mental health treatment program that’s specialized in the unique experiences of teens.

  1. Create a stable and supportive environment at home.

In your own home, you can help your child most by ensuring they feel safe, grounded, and supported. This means creating an environment that is both comfortable and nurturing, where your child can be who they are and still feel loved and understood. This environment should also be stable and predictable, with consistent routines, faces, and conversations that support their overall well-being. Steady routines are important to help those struggling with their mental health find balance, structure, as well as motivation in their day-to-day lives.

  1. Create a support network.

Supportive friends and family, as well as professionals, can be incredible tools to help encourage your child through their treatment journey. However, this support network is also important for you, the parent. Choose trusted, non-judgmental individuals who you can share your situation with; these loved ones may be able to offer emotional support and practical advice, or simply a shoulder to lean on when you need it. You may also consider joining a support group of others who are parenting children with mental illness, to find understanding and to speak with others walking in your shoes. Some adolescent treatment programs also offer family therapy for parents, which is designed to restore family relationships as well as teach coping strategies and self-care practices for the entire family.

At Turnbridge, we understand that feelings of guilt and shame often overcome parents who are parenting a child with a mental illness. Our family therapy program is available to help parents work through these feelings, learn how to manage symptoms, develop coping strategies, and connect with other parents in similar situations. 

  1. Take care of yourself.

In order to be the best parent you can be, you must take care of yourself. In addition to finding outside support, be sure to reserve some time for self-care at home. Make sure you are exercising, getting enough sleep, eating balanced meals, and finding time to do things that you enjoy. When you need a break, take a few moments to recharge. Modelling self-care in this way will encourage your entire family to prioritize self-care, too, helping the whole unit’s mental health.

  1. Enact coping strategies at home.

Once you take care of yourself, you will be better able to take care of your child and their needs. This includes developing coping strategies that you can use at home to help your child communicate, problem-solve, and stay positive. For example, you can encourage your child to talk openly and honestly about their feelings and thoughts. Let your child know that you will be there without judgment or pressure, and always with love and a listening ear. You may also teach your child how to work through negative thoughts and emotions through strategies like journaling, exercise, and various hobbies. You may always speak with your child’s counselors for specific ideas.

  1. Be an advocate for your child.

Whether your child is seven or seventeen, your role as a parent is to be their advocate. This means being proactive in ensuring that your child receives the best possible treatment, that resources are available to them in school, and that they have the space they need to be themselves. You may collaborate with other professionals, like your child’s teachers, counselors, doctors, and more to ensure they are aware of your child’s needs and can provide the appropriate support. 

  1. Keep up with mental health care.

It’s easy (and normal!) for parents to take the lead in their child’s health care, including supervising prescription refills and providing transportation to and from therapy. However, teenagers can also benefit from playing an active role in their care and recovery. Think about different ways your teen can get more involved in taking care of their mental health. Learning how to do so now can be elemental for your child down the road, establishing a positive trajectory for self-care. 

On a separate, but similar note, keeping up with care means keeping an eye on your child’s health. If any symptoms arise, or become worse, it’s important to record this and share with their treatment professional. Mental health conditions are chronic, and treatment is not always linear, so it’s important to stay involved and aware of any changes in their health.

Parenting is pivotal

Parenting a child with mental illness requires patience, understanding, and resilience. By educating yourself, creating a safe space at home, establishing a strong support network, and building an alliance of professionals who can properly support your child and your family, you will be well on your way to finding peace of mind.

Remember, parents are paramount to their children’s mental health. In a study of middle schoolers, it was found that children whose parents were more involved in their life and education experienced less overall difficulty with their mental health. These children were also less likely to be bullied and less likely to experience suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Parents can make all the difference.

Parenting a child with a mental illness?

If you have a child struggling with mental illness, you must take the steps to understand what they are experiencing. When you have an understanding of your child, you are able to make more informed decisions about their care and play a more active role in supporting their recovery and well-being. At Turnbridge, we help parents learn more about specific mental health conditions, as well as understand and cope with the unique symptoms experienced by their son or daughter. We also aim to show parents how to effectively and appropriately manage their child’s symptoms and ongoing treatment. 

If you are interested in speaking with a specialist at Turnbridge—a mental health treatment center for adolescents and young adults—please do not hesitate to reach out. We are happy to offer guidance or tell you more about our programs. Call 877-581-1793 today.