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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."

If your child is one of those statistics, you might already struggle with how to parent him or her. The challenge is to learn which behaviors are due to mental illness and what is just kid stuff. It's not always easy to tell the difference.

Mental illness is one of the many threads woven into my life's tapestry. I don't know why brain chemical imbalances have affected my family, but in addition to my son, several close and distant relatives, as well as my daughters and grandson, grapple with depression, an anxiety disorder, and bipolar disorder. In hindsight, I've learned that the "why" is immaterial compared to how I managed day-to-day as a parent and also as one who struggles with depression.

Below are six lessons I've learned during the past 30 years. I hope these tips will help you care for your child with more confidence.

1. Think Outside the Box

My husband and I were locked into the notion that the old-fashioned way our parents parented had worked for them and should work for our kids too. Boy, were we wrong! Putting Jane in the corner for timeout or putting Jack on restriction for days on end has little to no effect when a child struggles with mental illness.

Parenting a child with brain chemical imbalance and behavioral problems requires parents to think outside the box. That does not mean we throw structure and discipline to the wind. It means we search for the methods that will best suit our children.

I think of Proverbs 22:6 (NASB), which states, "Train up a child in the way he should go," which literally means according to his way. If you have more than one child, you can attest to the fact that each has his or her very own way. That is especially true for a child with mental illness.

In bringing about discipline, I found that positive behavior "charts" worked well for a while, but soon my son got bored with them. This challenged me to keep thinking and searching for what would work.

The only two old-fashioned methods that succeeded for us were consistency in how we handled our child and commitment to our child's well being.

2. Be Your Child's Advocate

Everyone has advice, especially if you go looking for it. But the truth is, you know your child better than anyone else. You are the expert when it comes to your child. You live with him or her and are aware of moods, habits, and what your child's character is made of. And you love that child the most.

As advocates, we become the squeaky wheels. People might not like it, but who else will fight for your child?

Of course, you should listen to the advice of professionals. But they visit with your child for 45 minutes once a month, or during school hours once a week, and make their evaluations based on those brief interactions and in those controlled environments.

So take into account their recommendations, but measure it by what you know to be true. You have a lifetime of experiences, before and after the onset of your child's mental illness. You are your child's best advocate. Remembering this will help in the choices you make to better your son or daughter's education and development and to guide you in finding the right people to help you help your child.

3. Arm Yourself with Education

If your child were diagnosed with any other disease, you would seek to understand that sickness, wouldn't you? You would want to know everything about it. Once you know, education is power in your hands. You no longer are an uneducated parent subject to another's opinion and advice.

I found that after I attended NAMI's 12-week Family-to-Family classes and did some research on my own, I was armed with accurate information and felt adequate to instruct others, like my grandson's teachers and classroom aides when I helped to oversee his care. I was perplexed by the number of people caring for children in schools and other facilities who lacked understanding and knowledge concerning mental illness and how to handle such children.

Support groups are fabulous for encouragement, as are training courses such as NAMI Basics, a 6-week course designed for parents with children in kindergarten through high school. These classes will give you the knowledge and empathy you need. You will meet people who are on the same journey as you. You are not alone.

4. Get Rid of Guilt

I remember when we first received Jay's diagnosis of ADHD. I felt guilty that I hadn't seen this, even though he was always in perpetual motion. But in NAMI they have a saying: "You can't know what no one's told you." There might be a predisposition in the DNA structure of the family history; nonetheless, mental illness is no one's fault

When I lingered in guilt, it led me down a path of unworthiness, blame, and shame. Let go of guilt! It will only hinder you when parenting your child and overseeing care. And that hindrance will keep you from being proactive.

I often used this verse to bolster my resolve: "I can do all this through him who gives me strength" (Philippians 4:13, NIV). God gave me strength even to parent a child with a mental illness.

5. Protect Your Child's Integrity

This, above all, is important to the self-worth and dignity of children, with mental illness or not. They are made in God's image, and the heart of a child is precious to God.

My grandson Gabriel, age five at the time, was put into a special kindergarten class for kids with problem behaviors. The teacher had a "no touch" policy in her classroom. She would stand back and allow him to run out of the room when he wanted to escape. But running off was part of the reason he was there!

One day I decided to wait for him until his class was over—when my grandson came barreling into the parking lot with teacher in tow. By this time, early kindergarteners were released, which means cars were driving in and out, with people watching this episode. I was frustrated at the teacher for making the issue worse than it needed to be, and for not stopping him from leaving the classroom in the first place.

More staff came to look on; there were about five of them gawking at the situation. I finally got my grandson into my car. The staff continued to stare at him through the car windshield. He finally screamed at them, using, unfortunately, a profane word. Though I didn't approve, it said volumes to me of his injured self-worth and his being made a spectacle. They did nothing to protect his integrity.

Another way to protect your child's integrity is to be careful whom you share your hardships with—this even includes clergy. Unless they've had training in this area and are highly compassionate people, they will be unable to provide the type of support you need. Even your best of friends, who mean well, offer advice in an area that they know little about. This can increase your guilt if you're not following their "you should …"

6. Pray—It's Crucial

A verse I embrace is "In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans" (Romans 8:26, NIV).

When at your wit's end, not knowing what to pray, remember God is always there and the Spirit of God knows exactly what you need in that moment of frustration.

With our younger daughter, who deals with an anxiety disorder, I'd pray often, "God, I need you to intervene because I'm going to lose it!" Thank goodness, God came through with a solution or the strength and wisdom to choose my battles with her.

Also, if you're asking the church prayer chain to pray, keep your request simple—you probably wouldn't want someone spilling your private battles; neither would your child.

To stay emotionally and spiritually strong, prayer is essential. Otherwise, your struggle will overcome you. Encourage yourself that when you don't know what to pray you can groan, because the Spirit understands and will help you in your weakness.

In summary, when parenting a child with mental illness, the methods of traditional parenting can be counterproductive, so think outside the box. Educating yourself on the kind of mental illness your child has will give you the knowledge to help you parent as well as assist you in informing others who don't comprehend mental illnesses. You are your child's best advocate, so protect his or her integrity, pray without ceasing, and let go of guilt. You can do this!

Diane Ramirez is a freelance writer, wife, mother of three adult children, and grandmother of five. She volunteers for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), co-facilitating a support group and the NAMI Basics classes for parents. She blogs about this topic at http://notlosingheart.com.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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