May is Mental Health Awareness month. Today’s blog is designed to draw attention to mental illness and offer help to bewldered parents.
“You’ll get over it.” “Snap out of it.” “Why are you so upset? This isn’t a big deal.” “Stop whining, your life isn’t that bad.” “Go do ___________, you’ll feel better.” “Quit complaining. When I was your age I never ___________.” “Why are you being so difficult and lazy?”
Have you said these things to your troubled son or daughter before you knew they had a mental illness?
You weren’t a bad parent because you said them. They make sense for the average child, but you didn’t know. You were operating out of ignorance.
I was too.
Then you discovered there was an explanation behind your child’s behaviors. Mental illness, a brain disorder; some say a mental affliction or a mental health condition. I like the last terms best.
Does your son or daughter suffer from a mental health condition: depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, PTSD, ADD, schizophrenia, schizo-affective disorder, borderline personality disorder, or some other mental health issue? Do you struggle to know what to say to them on their rough days? Most parents do.
Unprepared, we blow it many times. I sure did. How could we know that we needed to do things differently? We never expected this to happen. We did the best we could, but sadly, sometimes we wounded our beloved children.
I didn’t realize my daughter’s moodiness was more than a case of the blues. She wasn’t just in a bad mood for no reason – a common behavior for teens. She wasn’t lazy or intentionally uncooperative. There was a physiological explanation and I had no idea what was going on. How could I not say all the wrong things? I felt terrible about this for a long time. That didn’t help either. I needed to forgive myself.
A Good Goal
As parents of children living with mental illness here’s a good goal:
Avoid using belittling or dismissive language.
- “Snap out of it and stop crying.”
- “Stop whining, your life isn’t that bad.”
- “Go do ___________ and you’ll feel better.”
- “Quit complaining. When I was your age I never ___________.”
- “Why are you being so difficult and lazy?”
When we talk to our children in a dismissive way, we send a message we never intended: “Your feelings don’t matter.”
If we continue to belittle or dismiss our children’s struggles, they’ll shut down. They’ll quit talking to us and we’ll never know about their struggles. When they repress their feelings, bigger problems develop: self-injury (including eating disorders), self-medication with alcohol or drugs or pornography, and more.
Instead, we could say statements like:
- “I’m so sorry you’re having a rough day.”
- “I see you’re struggling. Please tell me about that.”
- “I have time to listen if you want to talk about what your feeling.” (don’t try to fix them)
- “Is there anything I can do to help?”
- “I’ll be available for you if you need me.”
- “I want you to know you’re not alone. I’m always here for you.” (Be sure and use I statements.)
A Practical Tip
Here’s a practical tip recommended by NAMI, The National Alliance on Mental Illness (nami.org):
Plan ahead and listen well.
What would you be comfortable saying when you’re likely to make a dismissive comment? What feels natural? Get comfortable speaking those statements out loud. Maybe choose from the list above. Practice using them. Try to memorize a few. Write them down or save them as a note in your phone where you can refer to them quickly and easily when needed.
Remember, you’re not your child’s counselor. Don’t try to be. But you could meet with their counselor to ask them for ideas on how to improve communication. That’s not a violation of their privacy. Their insights would be worth every penny. You can be an understanding, approachable, nonjudgmental parent. I promise you, this will make a huge difference in your relationship.
We Need This
Please don’t be too hard on yourself. No parent is perfect. If you realize you’ve messed up – or when you do – admit your mistake, ask them to forgive you, and ask God too – then forgive yourself and move on. Oh, how we need this. We’re brutal on ourselves. And please don’t try to be your child’s friend. That’s not what they need, either. They need you to be a supportive, loving parent.
Laying a Foundation
The way we respond to our child’s mental health challenges today lays a foundation for the kind of relationship we’ll have with them in the future.
Remember this: our words are powerful. They have the power to wound, but also to heal.
Today is a new day. There’s hope for all of us to learn and grow and improve.
It’s Okay Not to be Okay by Shiela Walsh
The National Alliance on Mental Illness www.nami.org
NAMI’s FREE Family to Family 8 session educational program. In-person and online.
What have you said or done that helped with your child?
Please share in comments.