There is no greater moment of joy in a (marriage) union that couples cherish than giving birth to a child. Also, the most heartbreaking period is that moment when you have to admit that your child may be seriously ill. When a child is diagnosed with mental illness, such discoveries throw couples and parents off...

parenting a mentally ill child

There is no greater moment of joy in a (marriage) union that couples cherish than giving birth to a child. Also, the most heartbreaking period is that moment when you have to admit that your child may be seriously ill. When a child is diagnosed with mental illness, such discoveries throw couples and parents off balance, leading them into a long path and journey of more shocking and painful discoveries.

They begin to learn about mental illness, its causes, and ways of managing it. In their thirst for answers and quest for seeking remedy for their child, they are forced to spend much time searching and devouring as much information as they possibly can while also comparing every case of mental illness they come across online with signs they see in their kid. Such obsession consumes their mind and makes them want to play doctor instead of seeking professional help.

Unfortunately, most families may not notice any sign or indicator of mental illness in their child until such illness is in its late stages. Most times, this is attributed to lack of information and awareness – Not everybody is aware of what mental health is all about and what it demands to have a sound mental health. Even when it becomes obvious that a child is mentally ill, some parents are quick to dismiss it as a spiritual attack or black magic of some sort. They would rather visit traditional doctors, clerics, and herbalist than consult professional mental health practitioners.

Before we dive into the subject matter, it is best to set some background information on the highlights of the subject namely parenting and mental illness.

What is your view on parenting?

A common definition of parenting will be promoting and supporting a child through every phase of his or her development including physical, emotional, social and even intellectual development of a child from infancy to adulthood. It is not exclusive to a biological relationship with a child but also all the “workings” or “ins and outs” of raising a child.

Parenting could be direct as in the case of parenting a child by biological parents or extended family members like an uncle, aunt, legal guardian, grandparents or other family relatives. Parenting could also be indirect as in the case of orphaned and abandoned children in which case the responsibility of parenting falls on non-parent blood relations like orphanages, foster care or homes. It is worth mentioning that the Government and society at large plays a significant role in parenting a child.

 Does parenting style affect a child’s mental health?

It is also noteworthy to mention that parenting styles affect the outcome of a child and it changes as cultural values and practices, social norms, and traditions evolve. The parenting style is a strong indicator of the emotional climate the child is exposed to at home and also affects the child’s mental health and well-being. Recall that parenting styles are broadly categorized into authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive, and uninvolved as identified by Developmental Psychologists Diana Baumrind. These classifications revolve around a combination of acceptance and responsiveness and also demand and control.

WHO Vs. Mental health

To begin with, the World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health beyond the absence of mental disorder as “a state of well-being in which an individual is aware of his or her own potential, cope with the normal stress of life, and work productively and fruitfully while contributing to the community.”

Mental health revolves around our cognitive, behavioral, and emotional well-being. It has a great impact on our daily functions like how we think, feel, our relationship, and how we behave at different times. Mental health could be used to mean the absence of a mental disorder or illness. Maintaining a sound mental health helps you strike balance in every sphere of life, it allows enjoy life and promotes greater chances of achieving psychological resilience.

Mental illness and your child: what to look out for!!

As much as we want to narrow our discussion to mental illness in children, we cannot dismiss the fact that we all have the potential to developmental disorder or illness regardless of gender, age, social class or ethnic group. It may also interest you to know that mental illness is responsible for a lot of disabilities in the world and a significant proportion of individuals with mental illness suffer from more than one illness.

  • What are the Common mental disorders?

The common mental illnesses are clinical depression, anxiety disorders like Panic disorders, Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), phobias, and schizophrenia disorders, to mention but a few. They are all distinct and exhibits different symptoms as well.

  • What are the Signs to look out for?

Experts believe that it is almost impossible to reliably tell if someone is developing mental illness or not. However, from close observations, there are signals that may be taken as clues. So as a parent you should be sensitive to spot them in your kids. These clues include but not limited to:

  • Your child Withdrawing from people or activities they usually enjoy
  • Changes in the pattern of sleeping and eating
  • Feeling unimportant and low self-esteem
  • The decline in energy level
  • The increased urge for drugs including alcohol nicotine
  • Confusion and display of uncharacteristic emotions
  • Loss of orientation and fragmented memories
  • Thoughts of self-harm
  • Delusion and hearing voices

What is your role as a parent?

When your child starts to show signs of mental illness, most parents have no idea on what to do. They constantly battle with the opinions of the child’s teachers, mental health professionals and a long list of information from sleepless nights on the internet that often overwhelm them.

You must always remember that every form of mental disorder is unique and the kind of treatment that is required varies from one person to another, so, try as much as possible to remain calm and identify what is best available treatment for your child while also been patient through the treatment or management process – What works for one parent or child may not work for the other.

“Staying connected to your child will give him or her a sense of security and love. It could be a simple cuddle, a loving note in his or her lunchbox.” -Anonymous quote

It is our responsibilities as parents to find the best treatment, understanding details of the diagnosis, and supporting the child throughout the process. It may be very tasking and exhaustive but we should find time to commit to the sacrifices that are required. Caring for a mentally ill child demands a lot from the parents as it involves striking balance with the needs of other children, work, and other commitments. As a parent coping with your child’s mental illness, you may feel isolated as it is quite difficult to find other parents or friends and families that truly understand what you are going through.

Mental health practitioners recommend that such parents from a network among themselves enable them to connect and share information throughout the treatment process. Hence, making meaningful change and also creating an understanding community and sense of belonging around the child and parent because the parents also need people to show empathy and compassion during this difficult time.

Dealing with the stigma

One cannot shy away from the challenges posed by the stigma of mental health disorders. Stigma is the foremost barrier to seeking treatment and why parents don’t discuss their children’s mental illness with others. Stigma comes in several forms including social distancing where people refuse to associate with the child which further push the child into isolation.

The stereotypes in the public domain about children with mental illness is majorly responsible for parents keeping quiet about their child’s diagnosis in an attempt to shield the child from such impending pessimism by other kids, and families. The words of Lisa Lambert; the executive director of the parent/Professional Advocacy League, while addressing the issue as to why parents remain silent about their Child’s’ mental illness because of stigma and hostility comes to mind. She was quoted to have said

“We need to be able to talk about our children and receive compassion, understanding and good advice…”

It is true that stigma discourages openness in such cases but parents must speak up to get help for their child. Parents should learn to manage the stigma and crises, at some point lower their expectation of help and keep trying. Here are some tips to help on this journey:

  • Find the right expert

One cannot overemphasize the need to find a competent mental health professional. He must be able to distinguish one disorder from the other – you cannot afford any element of misdiagnosis. The mental health professional is saddled with the responsibility of observing your child, gathering facts about your child’s conditions, and also provide reports from assessments. Try to seek second opinion about your child’s diagnosis just so you are sure everything is fine.

  • Identify the right therapy

Before you settle for any therapist, you should be clear about what you intend to achieve from the therapy. You should try to find out the kind of progress that is expected and how it can be accomplished and measured.

  • Track your child’s moods

You should come up with a means of tracking your child’s progress throughout the treatment period. This enables you to know what treatment or medication is working and also if any adjustment is required. Doing this prior to diagnosis makes it easier for any professional who evaluates your child.

Always remember to keep an open mind and also have it in mind that your child’s mental illness doesn’t make you a bad parent and it is not a life or death sentence. Your ability to identify the right treatment and support boosts the recovery process and a greater shot at living a healthy, and happy life!! You are not alone, help is available!!


-Muhammad Awwal-Isah

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