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Parenting Children Who Have a Mental Illness

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Rebeckah Atkinson

Written by Rebeckah Atkinson, BS

Rebeckah is currently an intern and under the supervision of Kayce Bragg, LPCS (# 8061), LAC #369

Rebeckah Atkinson, BS  is a resident of West Columbia, South Carolina. She received her B.S. in Psychology from Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina in December 2018, and she is currently completing her M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Webster University (Columbia, SC). She is on track to graduate in the Spring of 2024. 

Rebeckah believes that coming to therapy is a powerful step in the healing process. She aspires to create an open, empathetic, culturally sensitive environment in which clients can express their mental health or life concerns in a judgement free environment. She employs an integrative, trauma-informed approach to counseling that includes person-centered, cognitive-behavioral, and family systems therapy techniques. Rebeckah works with individuals, children, couples, and families.

Parenting Children Who Have a Mental Illness

parenting children

Parenting can be a hard job and demands so much but comes with many rewards. Many parents have children who suffer from a mental illness, or multiple mental illnesses, and it is so important to ensure that self- care is a priority. If you are a parent with a child who struggles with a mental illness, remember that you can only provide care for them if you are caring for yourself.

Think about getting on an airplane. When they give instructions for any emergency, they instruct you to put your mask on first and then take care of your loved ones. This is not selfish, but rather, ensuring that you are able to take care of your loved ones. Many parents struggle to maintain self-care due to the demanding schedule being a parent creates. When you add a mental illness to that, it is even more demanding. If you struggle to find self-care as important, do it for your loved ones, because they will also benefit from it. If you are operating at full capacity, they will be receiving top notch care from you, and will be better off for that.

The Impact on the Entire Family


It is also important to remember that a mental illness does not just affect your child, but it affects the entire family. Here are some tips how to check in on your family members:

  • Be sure to check in on the others in the family to ensure that they are okay.
  • Take time to spend with them individually, especially other children, so that they see that they are just as important to you.
  • Siblings who have a brother or sister that suffer from a mental illness can often feel like they receive less attention and that feeling can lead to negative attention seeking behaviors.
  • Sitting down with your other children or family members and explaining the details with them can often calm any negative feelings they may have about the situation.

Changes in Parenting Approach


When it comes to parenting a child with a mental illness, there are many ways that change the way you parent.

  1. Increased Patience: Your situation will require more patience than that of parenting a child without a mental illness. Children who suffer with mental illness suffer the same way that an adult would. If they struggle with anxiety, depression, or any other mental illness, it is not something that they can just “get over”. Many people feel that it is something you can just choose to put to the side, but that could not be further from the truth. So, when in the parenting role, ensure that you are patient with your child and allow them a little more leeway than you would your other children or a child without a mental illness.
  2. Educate Yourself: Knowing what to expect from your child’s mental illness is also a crucial part of the process. If you are fortunate enough to never had the same struggle as your child, ensure that you are well educated on the specific mental illness they have. You do not have to be a counselor, doctor, or a medical professional to understand their mental illness. Many times, when your child is diagnosed with a mental illness, you will be provided some form of information about it, but often, it does not feel like enough. There are a multitude of resources available online (blogs, research articles, support groups, etc.) for you to research on how to support your child. You also can go to your local bookstore or browse an online bookstore for books pertaining to your child’s specific mental illness, many of which are written for parents, and written in a manner that is easily understood and gives you the ability to apply it with your child.
  3. Be Alert to Changes: When you are aware of the symptoms that are a result of their mental illness, you will be able to see them as a product of the mental illness, and it is important not to ignore them. As parents, we have to watch for signs of internal and external issues with our children, and that is even more important when they suffer from a mental illness. Children grow so fast, and with that, their body chemistry is also changing. If your child seems to be acting out of sorts, or their symptoms are more severe, it may be a sign that you need to visit their doctor again and discuss it. Many children who suffer from a mental illness take medication to help aide them in dealing with the symptoms. As they grow, medication dosages may need to be adjusted to match your child’s weight and other factors. Being alert for these changes is crucial.

Educating Your Child


As parents, we are tasked with teaching our children how to do things throughout life as they grow up. This applies to a child with a mental illness, ensuring that they understand their situation. Often time, when they are young, they will not understand their condition any more than you do. Once you are educated on the mental illness, you will have the ability to educate them on it as well, giving them resources on what to expect, how to handle it, and answer all the “why’s” they might ask. The better your child understands their mental illness, the better they will be able to handle it themselves as they grow up. This will give them a sense of control and allow them to feel better about themselves and can often relieve any angst they may have regarding it. Living with a mental illness that you do not understand is hard enough as an adult, so it is so important to give your child all the information they need to help them along their journey. 

Disclosure to Others


Many parents ask if it is important to inform others about their child’s mental illness and the answer is not a yes or no. Depending on the mental illness and the surrounding circumstances, it can be necessary to inform others, such as school, childcare providers, etc. When you are not around, whether at work or when your child is at school, it is important that those providing the care for your child are aware of the mental illness in the case that something happens. You would want them to be prepared and able to provide the right support for your child should something trigger them or in the case of an emergency. As far as telling anyone else, that is a personal decision that you must make. Not everyone has the need to know every detail of your personal life and that pertains to your child’s life as well. Some families are very close, and they share everything with each other, whereas others are not, therefore, they are less likely to share such personal information. Ultimately, informing others is a personal decision, but always take your child’s best interest in mind. We live in a world where not everyone has the best motivations, and you want to protect your child from any unnecessary stress or outside opinions on the matter.

Knowing When to Ask for Help


Knowing when to ask for help is important. As a parent, we are not always able to provide the specific support our children may need. In a study published in Psychology Today, almost 12% of parents who had a child with a mental illness complained that they felt hopeless about their child’s mental illness and symptoms and reported that they did not know how to cope with the situation. This is very important to recognize, especially when you are a parent whose child struggles with their mental health. There are professionals, such as counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and many more that are trained to help alleviate some of the issue that may arise due to your child’s mental illness. You as a parent are not meant to know everything about their condition and cannot be all the support they need. Going back to self-care, admitting when you need help is not something to be ashamed of. If people did not need help, there would not be professionals who provide those services. Another factor to consider is that children do not share everything with their parents, especially when they are teenagers. Having an outside support person can be beneficial to you, your child, and your entire family. It is okay to share the heavy stuff and allow people, such as counselors, to help your child, you, or both deal with the hard parts of a mental illness. 

Advocacy and Being a Voice


Parents are known to be protective, as they should be, but as a parent of a child with a mental illness, we can be their voice in the world. Take the opportunity to be their advocate and an advocate for the many children who do not have someone doing it for them. Making the world aware of the mental illnesses that affect our children is something that can create change. Be that voice and let your child see that you want to make things better, and that you see them for who they are, and love them regardless of their mental illness. Sadly, there are so many children who do not have parents who pay attention enough to recognize that their child may be struggling from an undiagnosed mental illness, and the more we advocate and educate those around us, the more children we can help. 

In Conclusion


Having a mental illness does not define who a person is, and this is very important to teach our children. Mental illnesses have had a stigma attached to them for decades, but now that there is more research and a higher population of individuals who suffer from mental illnesses, that stigma is starting to become a smaller issue. Be an advocate for yourself, your child, and anyone else you know who may suffer because you never know when your voice is the one who can change everything for someone.


If you, or know of someone who could use some online counseling to feel heard and learn ways to cope, please connect with one of our therapists today for a free consultation.


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