Actions Speak Louder Than Words: Supporting Kids Through Mental Illness, by Lydia Cubbedge

Mental Health Awareness Month is upon us, and those of us who struggle with our own or care for a child with mental illness might feel like we have to expend a lot of energy, more than we have to spare, on explaining and raising awareness. Whether it’s PTSD, depression, anxiety, OCD, or a cluster B illness, there is a stigma surrounding mental illness. These issues are mysterious and frightening, especially when they show up in children. It’s a cross, a very difficult one, and one that is easily misunderstood. We can feel like we have to come up with philosophical and medical treatises to make people understand what it’s like to care for someone who suffers in this way. We don’t have to.

After my family’s deep dive into a mental health crisis earlier this year, I’m convinced that the best way to make others aware of the myriad issues surrounding mental health is to support your child through the illness as it arises. I’ve discovered a number of things that helped get my daughter through the initial crisis and continue to help our family get through the day to day as we manage her illness. To my surprise, our actions helped to demystify and lessen the stigma surrounding mental health among our friends and family.

Earlier this year my beautiful daughter was struggling with intrusive thoughts and body focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs), in her case, hair pulling. She has ADHD, but her medication seemed to ramp up her latent anxiety. The thoughts and behaviors got worse and worse, until she had an incredibly scary breakdown, triggering an avalanche of interventions. Our pediatrician immediately ordered medication and a referral to a psychiatrist who diagnosed her with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). She started therapy, got the right amount of meds, and is now so much better. We have good days and bad days, but the intrusive thoughts are manageable and the BFRBs have lessened in their intensity. As we got started on this journey my husband and I had to tell not only medical professionals what was happening, but ordinary people we knew. My daughter was out of school for a while; people noticed. We soon learned that what we did outweighed anything we could say as we helped our daughter through the crisis. People began to listen. This is, in a nutshell, what we did, and continue to do.

Seven Steps to Supporting Your Child’s Mental Health in a Crisis

  1. Believe your child. Our daughter’s intrusive thoughts were intense, and so foreign to her sunny, social disposition. We had to quickly get rid of any hangups we had in order for her to feel secure as she confided in us. It was scary. Don’t brush it off, or offer quick fixes, even when you desperately want to fix it. If your child’s struggle is more behavioral, believe that there’s something more than malice behind it. You know your child best, and if he’s acting out or behaving strangely, listen.
  2. Give your child what he needs. This varies wildly, depending on how your child struggles. For my daughter, she needed physical closeness and initially, a lot of reassurance. I think as a jumping off point that was the right choice; we soon discovered that to treat OCD you can’t do a lot of reassurance because that wires the brain to need more and more, which eventually becomes impossible. Immediately following that, within the first twenty four hours, she needed medical treatment. You may need to get them treatment as an emergency before offering emotional support. Do what’s right for your situation, but don’t put it off.
  3. Keep them talking. Be their safe person. Ask how they’re feeling, and when they want to answer, let them go as long as they need to. If they’re talking about it they’re feeling less shame, and a benefit to this is that it will trickle down to your circle, keeping them aware of what is happening,
  4. Educate yourself. Find good books about your child’s condition, verify its content with professionals, and get to reading! In our case we found a fantastic book for parenting kids with OCD. It was a game changer. Talk to the doctors and nurses and see what the recommend. Sometimes your pediatrician won’t know best practices for your child’s condition. Bring research to them. Recommend books to friends.
  5. Get support for yourself. Find people who will listen to you and shore you up with prayer and practical support. Online groups like Accepting the Gift are a great option! Sometimes child psychiatry practices or therapists will have in person support groups for parents and siblings. Take advantage of whatever your community offers. In our case we relied on friends whose children also have disabilities. They live far away but being able to shoot them a text at any time of the day or night was incredibly helpful, and refueled us so we could care for her.
  6. Let their teachers know and insist on accommodations. Any parent of a child with learning differences or disabilities knows how frustrating it can be to get the right supports in place for school. Mental health issues require a lot of hoop jumping. Most school districts have hospital/homebound services that can be put in place to ensure your child stays up to speed in school while staying at home or in a medical facility. Not every teacher fully grasps this necessity, but it is your right to access education for your child no matter his or her mental state. Private schools may be able to accommodate via work sent home or online lessons. Most teachers want to help–it’s our job to help them understand.
  7. Pray. Pray a lot, even, maybe especially, the prayers of desperation. I spent a lot of time just repeating “Jesus, help us. Mary, help us. St. Dymphna, help us.” That might be all you can manage and that’s more than okay! God knows what your child needs and loves your child even more than you do. Be merciful to yourself and to your little one. He is there for them and he suffers with them. Stay attached to Him in prayer.

During Mental Health Awareness month, let’s tend to the garden of our children’s minds more than worry about making outsiders aware. We are here to help them as they carry their cross. Our witness as we do so will have more of an impact than our words can ever have.

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