“Self Care” and Parenting a Child With Mental Illness

I have stepped out into the light, having trudged through the fog of parenting a child with significant, untreated and/or misdiagnosed mental illness for 10 years. This is because of a lack of mental health resources, not for lack of effort in trying. After battling through this past year in the midst of the worst I have ever seen, I have learned some powerful truths. And in accepting them, I find light. As I rediscovered my role in my daughter’s distraught life, it felt as though that vessel that holds all my heartache, you know that tender achy place just behind your sternum?…just completely shattered. I reached my limit for heartbreak and then I found mySELF bouncing back.

Throughout this past year, there just weren’t enough glasses of wine, bubble baths, or coloring books to ease this constant state of crisis. The best “self care” I could possibly give me was to redefine my parental role to a mentally ill child. I took all I have learned through my personal experience growing up with mental health issues (I had excellent and accessible mental healthcare to navigate them), my professional experience and training as a disability accommodations specialist for 5 years and foster parenting. I gave myself some grace and some distance from this past year with Layla, and I have learned some things that might be helpful for others in similar situations. For their own self care.

  1. People with significant mental illness still have brains that rationalize – but not the way you think. From a young age, we are taught to reason and rationalize, so the brain will try. When the brain feels intense emotions, it needs a reason for those emotions. The problem with depression is that there isn’t a reason or circumstance for those feelings to attach to, it is a chemical imbalance. Nothing in the environment is causing the pain, it is just there because the brain is producing too much or too little of some hormone. The rational brain doesn’t know that. As a result, that person’s closest relationship(s) often suffer the most. They very often believe you are to blame in some way so you undergo a lot of bizarre accusations and abuse. Understanding this helps us not to take the accusations personally, but it still wears us out.
  2. I am not the cause of my child’s suffering. It is truly not my fault that her chemicals are imbalanced. I did not cause this problem. Layla’s reality and that of the rest of the world are not the same, so she honestly believed the terrible things she accused me of. But once I realized that I did not have to accept her accusations or reason with her, I looked her right in the eye and said, “I do NOT accept that. I am not in charge of your happiness or your pain. I have done everything I can to help you get the medicine you need and I love you. You will not put that burden on me and I will not accept it.” Saying it out loud made me realize how true it really was and freed me from a guilt I didn’t realize I was carrying.
  3. My child’s mental illness is not a reflection of me or my parenting skills. I no longer feel the need to put out all the fires she starts (figuratively speaking).  If she destroys every friendship she has, I cannot do enough damage control to keep up. I can only hope for understanding from other parents. The consequences of her actions will be what they must. So mostly, I have to take pre-emptive action where it is possible (i.e., no social media, no sleepovers, etc). She is still being taught right from wrong, but that doesn’t guarantee that she is learning it since she is not living in reality. Otherwise, I have divested myself of the sense of inevitable failure of such an impossible and monumental task – until she is healthy again.
  4. Just because you love your mentally ill child and they live in a loving family, does not mean they feel or are able to receive that love. I can provide a loving, nurturing environment with plenty of intentional points of interaction and model healthy relationships for her. But she is not picking up the cues or reading the memos when the synapses are not firing properly in her brain. From what I have seen, I notice that if left untreated, the synapses begin creating unhealthy connections and develop behaviors that don’t reflect the environment he or she is in. Therefore, the capacity for healthy relationships through life can become significantly jeopardized. It is crucial to be able to medically treat the synapses and hormones and retrain the brain through therapy to become a healthy adult capable of loving intimacy.
  5. Parents of children with mental illness desperately need breaks and the child needs “fresh starts.” So once you have upheld those boundaries and the child continually barges right through, careless of the consequences and there is literally no material thing or privilege left to take from the child, and you have had enough…it is time for a time-out for everyone. Especially the parent. We packed Layla off to a relative or close friend’s house for the weekend countless times. Everyone could breathe again. And upon returning home, we gave back all the privileges and started over. Of course, it is often only a matter of days before we were back where she left off, but it is a kind reprieve for everyone.
  6. In some circumstances, you find that you have reached the end of what YOU can do for your child. In the worst of it, with no where left to turn for medical help that would actually benefit my child, I had to release my role – temporarily. Since mental healthcare is largely inaccessible where we live, and all of the resources available to us were completely exhausted and useless, we decided to send her to live with relatives who do have access to quality care in another state. Once we made the decision, I told her, “I cannot provide you with the medical help you need where we live, I cannot parent you when you are so medically unstable, you need to go to a place where you can get that help. And then, when you have the medication and tools you need to cope, we can try this again.” I did ask her if she wanted to go. She immediately said yes. I am fully aware of how fortunate we are to have such an opportunity.

I know that I have done everything in my power to help my child. I no longer have to hold myself responsible for things that aren’t mine. I can let go. I am able to heal now. I can be a friend to my friends again. My sense of humor is returning. My other children feel safe, loved and stable. And someday very soon, after she is properly diagnosed and with the proper course of treatment, I believe she will return home and become a strong, capable adult with fulfilling and loving relationships. She is already on the right track and she is healing so I have hope for her again.




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