Helping Your Child With Mental Illness
From the experiences and perspectives of the child.
I was 13 the first time anyone noticed I was struggling. My grades in school started to slip, I lost friends, and I began to isolate myself. It was scary to have people ask me questions and want to change my routine. I didn't trust them, I thought, "There's no way they will understand this." While I still understand this thought, I realize that it was not 100 percent the case.
As a teen, trying to act like an adult and take care of myself, I was determined to figure things out on my own. Despite whatever anxieties or levels of depression I was feeling, I was sure it was my fault, and that I had to fix it alone. I was convinced something was wrong with me and that I had done something to cause these intense feelings. Six years later, this thought still comes to me, and sometimes still feels true. It's hard for a teenager and young adult to open up to the fact that they need help, especially when help is difficult to find. It would have been so much easier if I knew where to find support for what I was feeling, or had people in my life I knew I could trust with anything. Now I know that is the key to healing; a non-judgmental and safe space to be able to talk openly about yourself. This space doesn't have to be in a $300 an hour psychiatrist's office. Often, it's most effective when that space can be created at home.
When I felt unsafe in my thoughts and emotions, I wish I would have had the courage to talk to someone I trusted in my family. For me, it would have been my mom. Instead, I just hid away in my room, and never told anyone what was happening. I know my mom didn't understand the seemingly sudden change in my behavior, and I know she worried about me, but neither of us could bring ourselves to reach out. The worse my depression and anxiety got, the harder it was for me to function, even on a basic level. The longer I went without talking to anyone, the worse I felt. When I considered reaching out to someone, I was so worried about how I would be perceived. I didn't want to be seen as weak or needy or selfish. I was so concerned about how others would react, and that made me feel even more isolated.
My mom started to show her concern and check in on me from time to time, but I always said the same thing, "I'm fine." I felt torn in two different directions; I wanted to tell her I was struggling, but I also wanted her to leave me alone. I was so worried about burdening her with my feelings, but looking back I never had any proof that she would be upset or mad at me. I know it would have helped both of us if I opened up to her. I applaud her now for trying so hard to get me to open up. She was doing the best she could to get me to feel better despite her frustration in not knowing how to help me.
Although that was a difficult time, we both learned a lot. She learned that asking me, "How are you?" or "Are you Okay?" wasn't going to cut it. She started asking me open ended questions with a compassionate tone. Eventually, I learned that she really did care and want to help me. Her knowing what to ask me still is a learning curve. A lot of the time, even today, she has to ask me a series of questions before I tell her anything. She also knows that sometimes, I won't tell her what is bothering me and she is okay with that. She knows that I will eventually tell her if something is really bothering me, and she gives me the time and space to do so. We trust each other enough now to talk openly about most things, but that took time.
The most helpful thing she does is keep a calm, compassionate tone as I talk to her. No matter how bad I think it is, she stays calm, and asks me what I need in order to talk to her. The benefit of this is it gives me time to think about what I need to feel comfortable so we can have the most open conversation that is beneficial to the both of us. Once I tell her what is going on, she makes sure to tell me that she is proud of me for opening up, and that we are in this together. I know that although she may not always agree with what I have done or what I am feeling, she will be there to help and support me. She knows that judging me or getting mad at me is not going to help either of us in that moment.
When I tell her what I am feeling she makes sure to validate my feelings, whether she agrees with them or not. She will repeat back to me what I said to make sure she understands, and then will say, "I understand why you may be feeling this way," or, "It sounds like this is very difficult for you, and I am always here for you." By saying this, she is validating my feelings, and showing her support. She is not saying whether or not she agrees with me, or inserting her own feelings into the situation, she is being as impartial as she can be to try and best help me.
The next step for us is her asking me what I need to feel better, and how she can best support me through this. I usually don't know the answer to that, so we problem solve what we can do to help me. If I am feeling depressed and lonely, she may suggest we go do an activity she knows I enjoy. If I am feeling anxious, we may go through the event, and brainstorm ways I can cope. She is also very respectful if I need time alone to process what I am dealing with. There are times when there isn't an immediate solution, or times when I don't feel like doing anything about how I am feeling. In that case, she says, "let me know if you need anything, I will be here when you are ready." The key to our communication is her letting me lead the conversation and choose an effective action. Not only does this help me build skills to know what I need in that moment, but it also lets me know that she is there for me, and will do whatever she can for me. She will very often tell me that she is there for me and willing to do whatever I need. This reminds me that I can go to her when I need to, and trust that she will support me regardless of what I am dealing with.
More coming soon...