Parenting can bring oodles of joy, and yet it can be one of the most challenging experiences you can go through. Parenting at any time is hard, but add the pandemic, the lockdowns, the constant uncertainties surrounding us – and the challenge reaches a whole new level. This is especially so for parents of children with mental health concerns. While a lot of ground has been covered on the impact of parental mental health on children, much is to be said about the impact of a child’s mental health on parents. This article hopes to provide tools and helpful information for parents caring for a child with mental health issues.
Most parents dream of raising happy, healthy, and carefree children. So, when you start to notice concerns about your child’s mental health, it can lead to a lot of conflicting and unpleasant feelings. In the initial stages, you may question your observations, dismiss them, or go back and forth between accepting and denying the presence of concerning behaviors. If the concerns are brought to your notice by teachers or other individuals involved in your child’s life, you may feel that your child is being misunderstood. It can be hard to even acknowledge such feedback. Naturally, a lot of parents instinctively react with ‘How come I do not see that behavior at home?’ or ‘You don’t know my child.’
At other times, you may recognize that your child is struggling in some ways, and is needing support, but you may not know how to find help. In many places, parents find it difficult to access timely care for their children. In January 2020, nearly 28,000 children and youth were on waitlists for community mental health services in Ontario, with wait times ranging from 2 to 3 months to even 2.5 years (1). These long wait times for mental health support can cause significant distress and frustration, as you may worry about your child’s mental health.
Stress and worry about a child’s wellbeing have a significant impact on the parent’s mental wellbeing as well. The child’s mental wellbeing not only impacts their own ability to engage in various activities, but also impacts their parent’s involvement in their professional and social engagements. As a parent, you may find it difficult to concentrate on your work and engage in self-care as you balance work responsibilities as well as care for a child’s mental well-being. You may need to take time off to support your child. A pre-pandemic survey conducted in 2017 identified that as many as 50% of parents had stated that they were worried about their kids’ anxiety, and as many as 25% had taken leave from work to care for their child (2). These numbers may have increased significantly in the last few years and are a small reflection of the extent to which a child’s mental health struggles impact the family and caregivers.
It can become overwhelming when a parent must learn about their child’s mental health concerns, identify the resources the child may need, and advocate for the child to get the needed support. In addition to that, they must fulfill their own responsibilities and battle the worries and fears about the possible stigma. Parents often find themselves struggling as well. If you relate to this, know that you are not alone. Here are some things you can do:
Manage your own emotions about your child’s struggles.
If your child has symptoms related to a mental health issue, it is crucial to first navigate your own feelings about the situation. Supporting your child can involve a range of feelings, including fear, confusion, frustration, and even guilt. You may wonder, ‘Is it my fault?’ When you are attempting to understand and navigate the concerning emotions and behaviors that your child may be showing, it is common to wonder what you, as a parent, are doing wrong. These thoughts and feelings can have a negative impact on your wellbeing, as well as affect your relationship with your partner, family, friends, and even your child. Although it is natural to feel this way, it is important that you do not take their concerns as a personal failure. Acknowledge your feelings and reach out for support if you need to. Recognize that your child’s mental health struggles are not your fault.
Realizing that your child has mental health concerns and reaching out for support can bring up a myriad of feelings. It is normal to feel confused about whom to confide in and where to seek support. Naturally, you want the best advice to ensure that your child is well taken care of. One of the best places to start is your family doctor (General Practitioner) or your child’s pediatrician. It may also help to check with your employer if you have any benefits for counseling support or spaces to talk about your feelings so that you can get support in coping with your own emotions. Many employers also offer benefits that can help you get support for your child.
Engage in self-care.
One way a parent can truly support their child is to engage in care for themselves. It can help to identify activities for physical, intellectual, and emotional self-care, and block some time each day for engaging in them. Although this may sound counter-intuitive, this will not only enable you to recharge your own batteries, but it will also teach your child to prioritize their own self-care. Children knowingly or unknowingly often emulate their parents’ behaviors. You can help your child build resilience and a positive self-image by engaging in healthy coping strategies like meditation, spending time in nature, and fostering healthy relationships. When your child notices that you take out time to de-stress in a busy schedule, it can encourage your child to do the same.
Spend time with your child.
One of the most important things you can do for your child is to simply be there for them. This could mean spending quality time with your child, taking an interest in their activities, planning trips with them, or setting aside some parent-child time each day. Depending on your child’s age, quality time can vary from arts and craft activities to going for a coffee together or even going to a movie.
Set your child up for success, not failure!
Identify the things your child can do well and encourage them to take on tasks that are slightly more challenging. When a parent or teacher sets goals for a child that are aligned with the child’s strengths, and not based on what other children in their age group are able to do, they help the child build a positive sense of self. Start where your child is, not where you want them to be!
Children respond positively when they have consistency. Consistency with rules around the house, chores that the children do, and even consistency with reactions from the parents can go a long way in the child feeling secure and self-assured. Having some level of consistency at home helps children cope with new challenges that may come up outside their home.
It is okay to not have all the answers.
Caring for a child’s mental health needs may mean that a parent must juggle between the roles of a parent, teacher, therapist, doctor, and even a superhero too! While this may seem like what your child is demanding, know that all your child really needs you to be is their parent! They need to know that they have you and can turn to you. You may not have all the ‘right’ answers, and that is okay. You may not have much experience with children’s mental health issues, but you do have the experience of knowing your child. Rely on your strengths as a parent and think about what helps your child thrive.
Turn to the experts.
It is helpful, and often necessary to seek help and advice from experts in the field. For example, teachers may be able to provide information about the younger children’s interactions with their peers at school, as well as their responses to various teaching methods. It is also possible that your child may want to talk about their concerns, but not know how to. School counselors, psychotherapists and other mental health professionals can help your child identify what is going on and give your child tools to cope. And while these professionals may be field experts, know that you are the expert when it comes to your child’s unique needs. You, as parents, can provide a wealth of information about your child’s behaviors at home, including their strengths, challenges, and what has or has not worked for your child in the past. When parents and professionals come together in the interests of the child, it is then that the child can truly flourish.
Address stigma associated with mental health.
Parents and children are often hesitant to reach out for support for fear of judgment or due to concerns about stigma related to mental health. This can mean that the child does not get support even when it is available. One way to tackle this is to share concerns with the people you feel you can trust. Reach out to friends or family who have been supportive in the past. Talk to your child about a friend or an adult outside your home that your kid may feel comfortable going to.
Advocate for your child.
When seeking help and support for your child, you may feel like you or your child are not being understood or sufficiently accommodated. Whether it is long wait times or getting the right support for your child, advocating for your child can feel like an uphill battle. What may help is knowing and remembering that you are not alone. There may be support groups available in your area that may help you get connected with other parents or caregivers who have gone through similar struggles. It may also help you to become aware of your rights as parents. If your child is in school, it may help to check about the school’s preferred ways of communication, and brochures or parent guides informing what the school can do to help.
What organizations can do to help and support parents.
Often, the biggest challenge a parent faces is finding accurate and reliable sources that can answer their questions. The mental health needs of a child vary with age and severity, and it is difficult for parents to recognize and keep track of the latest developments in healthcare that may benefit their child. Schools can help organize informative workshops and seminars to help parents and teachers recognize the signs to look out for. Similarly, employers can also provide seminars related to mental wellbeing and confidential support for parents to express their concerns and get support. Employers can also help by offering helplines where parents can reach out to access support.
Attached below are some additional resources that may provide helpful information and avenues for support:
- For parents – ‘Not What I Expected: Help and Hope for Parents of Atypical Children’ by Rita Eichenstein PhD
- For children – ‘How to Tame the Tumbles: The Mindful Self-Compassionate Way’ by Eileen Beltzner