Self-Care for Parents of Children with Mental Health Needs

Joy, anticipation, frustration, worry and pride are all common feelings that most parents have as they nurture their child into adulthood. However, when a child has a mental illness, this range of thoughts and feelings escalates in a way that can be exhausting and overwhelming. It can leave a parent feeling discouraged, or even downright hopeless about the future.

While these fears and worries are understandable, parents who get the support they need are best able to help their child. As one parent put it: “My son’s illness brought pain and heartache into our lives, it also brought an awareness of gratitude. How I responded to his needs defined our relationship for the future.” This sentiment is not uncommon for parents or individuals who experience a serious illness. While no parent would choose for their child to have a mental illness, facing this reality head on helps families realize what life experiences are truly important and how to create satisfaction and meaning in their everyday lives.

Care for the Caregiver

Much has been written about the need for “care for the caregiver” in the past decade, both for professionals and for family members who are in a caregiver role. Common and important messages include:

  • Above all things, let go of guilt and shame. They get in the way of seeking and staying involved in treatment, and are unnecessary emotional burdens. Serious mental disorders are typically the result of brain-based and biologic factors that are beyond your, or your child’s control. While it’s your responsibility to help get the best care you can, it’s nobody’s fault. Be honest with your family and child about the diagnosis so everyone can support treatment in a healthy and clear way.
  • Give yourself and everyone a break. You, your providers, your child and your family are all going to make mistakes. There is much we are still learning about how to respond to each child’s unique needs. Take a breath, speak up when you have a concern, resolve the problem and then get back to it. This is a great lesson for a child.
  • Educate yourself from reliable sources about your child’s diagnosis. While not all children experience the same mental illness in the same way, being able to anticipate possible symptoms and treatment recommendations provides reassurance that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
  • Remember, not all mental illnesses are the same. Some can be treated and, with good self-care symptoms, may not return. Others will be life-long, with reoccurring symptoms that require ongoing services to manage symptoms. In all cases, even individuals with the most serious mental illnesses can substantially improve their health and wellness and lead meaningful, productive and happy lives.
  • Ask good questions. Science about treating mental illness has improved over the past decade. If your provider is not using evidenced-based treatment, ask why. There may be a good reason, or you may opt for a second opinion. If you are exhausted and need more support than what your family and community can provide, consider asking your provider about respite services or some other higher level of care for your child. Don’t try to be superhuman ‑ it could be dangerous.

Really, find time to take care of myself?

Most parents roll their eyes when asked if they are taking care of themselves. However, doing so helps your child’s recovery because it demonstrates that things like rest, socializing and eating well are key to overall health and wellness. It also helps you be at your best when your child needs it and helps prevent responding in an emotional or fatigued state. Here are some tips:

  • Think small. Even regular, brief walks, short conversations and an occasional night out with friends can make a difference.
  • Get help from trustworthy friends and family. It gives them something important to contribute and makes them feel helpful.
  • Find a local parent support group. Two such organizations, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Mental Health America (MHA), have local organizations across the country. Some churches, behavioral health organizations and hospitals also have these types of groups. Services are usually free and offer support that both parents, siblings and extended family members find helpful. They also can help you with understanding and addressing the financial burdens that come along with treating a serious illness. If a support group is not your style, consider finding your own therapist for support and guidance.
  • Nurture, praise and support, but do not overprotect your child. Set clear limits and reinforce them as consistently as possible. Children learn quickly and if caregivers do difficult things for them, they will let them. However, this prevents your child from learning much needed coping skills, and reinforces manipulative behavior. The line between appropriately protecting and ensuring safety can be a fine one, but with help from your treatment providers, you can figure it out.
  • Take care of your relationships. A high number of parents report that their marriages and significant relationships suffer as result of caring for a child with mental illness. Nurturing these relationships is as important as nurturing your child. Not doing so can create anger and resentment, and, in the end, could rob the whole family of the very things that brings them strength and joy.
  • Prepare for transitioning to adulthood. As adolescents become adults, it can be especially challenging for both parents and child. Reinforcing their independence and responsibility is especially important at this time. Some failures are going to happen. With support and encouragement, these can be the basis for new learning and the development of resiliency. Ask your providers about Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) and Mad Maps from the Icarus Project. Both tools can help young adults develop long-term plans for health, wellness and ongoing recovery.

Hope for the Future

Understandably, parents want the best for their child, and a mental illness can change our ideas of what we hope for in their future. What each child’s future holds may not be clear, but overcoming fear-driven thinking and using available resources helps put your child on the best course for finding their unique and meaningful place in the world.

For more information on Big Lots Behavioral Health Services at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, click here.

Nancy Cunningham, PsyD
Dr. Nancy Cunningham is a psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital who has provided child and adolescent clinical services and overseen program development in their behavioral health department. Dr. Cunningham currently works with external community providers and organizations to develop partnerships that result in improved access to care and integration of services on behalf of children and their families.

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