Parenting Children with Mental Illness

6 lessons I've learned

I remember while I went to school, my father babysat my toddler son, Jay. One night I came home to a flustered grandpa. "Diane, there is something wrong with Jay. He cried the whole time you were gone. That's not normal." My dad's words about my son hurt me, but I just filed them away in my memory.

Later, a concerned church nursery worker suggested we might consider having Jay wait another year before he went to kindergarten. She felt he was immature. I grappled emotionally with this and strengthened my resolve to protect him from those who did not understand him. Energetic, creative, and talkative were words that described Jay as a child. He did things differently than his peers. Why wasn't that okay?

In junior high school, our son received his first diagnosis of ADHD. Then in high school came the diagnoses of clinical depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. My husband and I struggled to differentiate between Jay's typical behaviors and those caused by brain chemistry. We also struggled with our personal attitudes toward mental illness, society's attitudes, and the opinions of those who interacted with our child. We often listened to their beliefs that mental illness was used as an excuse for his behavior. This made life difficult. And it still does.

Did you ever feel your child was "different," even before he took his first step?

The stigma associated with mental illness often causes parents to deny the possibility that something deeper is going on in a child's brain. As a result, they attribute odd or unacceptable behaviors to laziness or irresponsibility. Or some just chalk them up to puberty. Some parents blame themselves—and assume their children's behavior is a reflection on poor parenting or inadequate role modeling, not understanding the genetic predisposition to mental illness.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports, "Ten percent of children and adolescents in the United States suffer from serious emotional and mental disorders that cause significant functional impairment in their day-to-day lives at home, in school and with peers."

Mental illness is real and alarming. Why? Because every year, one in four people is directly affected by conditions like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety disorders.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), "Research shows that half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14. Scientists are discovering that changes in the body leading to mental illness may start much earlier, before any symptoms appear."

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May 25

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