From One Parent to Another: How to Help Your Child

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Note: This blog is part of a cross-collaboration between the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. This piece originally appeared on the NAMI Blog.

September 29, 2017 – When my family was struggling with the onset of our teenage daughter’s mental illness, stigma made us reluctant to “come out.” It was too late before we realized we weren’t as alone as we thought. According to NIMH, just over 20 percent (or 1 in 5) children have a seriously debilitating mental health condition. By staying silent, we perpetuated stigma and prevented ourselves from finding the best available help.

Sadie lost her battle with mental illness, and I lost my daughter.

Through this heartbreaking experience, I’ve learned a lot from my mistakes. I’m sharing my newfound knowledge with you—parent-to-parent—with the hope that even one of these suggestions might prevent another lost battle. 

Accept Your Child’s Diagnosis

For many parents, their child’s diagnosis is difficult to process. You want so badly for your child to have a normal, happy life that it’s easy to believe, on good days, that they have overcome their challenges. Accept that the way their brain works is a unique part of who they are. Help your child find a new normal—one that leverages their strengths, interests and capabilities. Build a normal, happy life that fits them.

Get Educated and Network

Read as much as you can. Get on the distribution list of as many mental health organizations you can that provide information, support and research updates. Talk with trusted friends, colleagues and family. I know this is hard, but you will be surprised at how many people open up to you about their challenges. Help may come from the most unexpected places.

Listen and Don’t be Judgmental

Instead of focusing on your child’s behaviors, try to understand their feelings. Rather than asking “why” questions, which can sound judgmental, ask “how” or “what” questions.

Consider taking effective communication training. After Sadie died, I volunteered to work on a crisis line. I learned how to defuse anger, connect with people and partake in collaborative problem-solving. I’ve always felt as though these skills would have helped me communicate with Sadie more effectively.

Call a Crisis Line

If you or your child needs information, resources or someone to talk to during difficult times, make a call or send a text to:

Don’t Let Shame Interfere with Getting Help

If your child had a physical condition, you would seek medical help. Do the same for your child if they have a mental health condition. Find a mental health specialist who provides the right kind of therapy, is highly recommended and is someone your child connects with.

As your child grows, their mental health condition may change or evolve. Consider requesting a periodic assessment of their diagnosis. To identify the appropriate treatment, a good diagnosis is critical.

Empower Your Child

Teach them positive lifestyle habits, such as diet, exercise, regular sleep and mindfulness. Talk about the dangers of self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. Link your child with legitimate resources that provide help and community for youth.

Have a Discussion About Suicide

Find out whether your child is having suicidal ideation, and if they have plans to act on those thoughts. Talking openly and showing genuine concern are key elements in preventing suicide. Make sure they have crisis phone numbers saved to their phone. Also, have a crisis plan prepared for them.

Have Hope

Remember that new developments are happening every year. Don’t give up, because your child’s life may depend on your perseverance.

NAMI also offers a class—NAMI-Family-to-Family—that might help you to better understand your child’s condition. These classes can help learn all I’ve learned, and more.

Karen Meadows, author of “Searching for Normal: The Story of a Girl Gone Too Soon.” After a six-year battle with her teenage daughter’s depression and subsequent suicide, Karen Meadows left behind her successful career in the energy industry to immerse herself in mental health issues. She spent years reading about mental illness and reading her daughter’s extensive writing. She volunteered on a crisis line and at homeless youth centers, and serves on the Oregon Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Board of Directors. Meadows lives with her husband and two cats in Portland, Oregon. http://www.karenmeadowsauthor.com/