How to Help a Young Child with a Mentally Ill Parent
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According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (2008), a parent with a mental illness represents a significant risk for their child. Specifically, this child has a higher risk of developing a mental illness, than a child without a mentally ill parent. Furthermore, when both parents are mentally ill, the risk of a mentally ill child increases two-fold.
Truth-be-told, a parent who suffers from a mental illness (i.e. bipolar disorder, clinical depression, schizophrenia, phobias, anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), etc.) cannot effectively “parent” a child, unless he or she is actively seeking treatment (i.e. medications and counseling). In other words, a mentally ill parent must be “stable enough” to actively be there for his or her child. In order to be a “good” parent, a mother or father must be able to provide for that child (i.e. feed, house, educate, interact, love, discipline, and care for him or her).
This parent should be able to help his or her child with homework assignments, actively listen to that child’s day, dreams, fears, concerns, beliefs, and opinions, put food on the table for that child, discipline that child when he or she misbehaves, kiss the child’s “boo-boos” when he or she gets injured, and provide tender, loving care for that child when he or she is ill. In other words, a parent is supposed to “make it all better” for his or her child. Unfortunately, a mentally ill parent cannot adequately provide those basic necessities for his or her child, unless the condition is stabilized. So, until that parent can properly care for his or her child, it is important that friends and family members step in and shield that him or her from feelings of loss, abandonment, and confusion.
In other words, it is imperative that a child with a mentally ill parent feel loved and protected at all times. That is where you come in. Although, mental illness is a hard thing to deal with, even as an adult, it can be especially taxing for a young child, however, you can make a difference in the life of a young child, who is dealing with a mentally ill parent. So, if you are interested in learning how to you can step in and provide support for a youngster with a mentally ill parent, you have come to the right place. This article will provide you with suggestions that will help you provide a stable, loving, and supportive environment for a young child in desperate need of one.
Reach Out to Family & Friends
If you want to help a young child with a mentally ill parent, you will need to reach out to his or her family and friends. Even if you are a relative or close friend, you will still need support when caring for this child. Call other friends and family members, and explain to them what is happening with this parent-child combo. Truth-be-told, it is not uncommon for a mentally ill parent (not in remission or stabilized) to hide the condition from others for fear that he or she will be judge, or that his or her child will be taken – because of the mental illness. However, it is important that loved ones know what is happening with the parent and the child. Why? So that parent and child can receive the proper care, help, and support. And, although, loved ones may not know exactly what is going on in that parent-child unit, they may suspect that something “just isn’t right.” Moreover, they may be really worried, but not know how to reach out to the parent and child. Explain to other family members and close friends that the child needs an extra dose of love, support, and fun activities to distract him or her from the effects of having a mentally ill parent.
Plan Fun Activities
As mentioned above, you will also want to plan activities for a child with a mentally ill parent. It is important to plan activities that will be fun for the child. It is also imperative that you and loved ones partake in the activities with the child. Also, invite the child’s friends and relatives to come along, and ask for their suggestions. Some ideas of fun activities include: playing putt-putt (golf), going bowling, ice skating or inline skating, going to an amusement park, going to the movies, spending time at a park and having a picnic, visiting a zoo, going to Chucky Cheese, and visiting a child’s museum.
Most of all, always be available for this child. In other words, be around to talk with the child when he or she wants to talk to you. This child may or may not want to talk about his or her parent’s mental illness, and that is ok. If the child is really young, he or she may not fully understand what is happening with his or her parent, and that is ok too. However, if the child is at least school age, he or she may be scared and confused, and need to talk frequently about his or her parent. In those cases, just be there for the child.
Answer his or her questions, and provide child-appropriate responses. Be prepared for questions like: “What is wrong with my mommy or daddy?” and “Is my mommy or daddy going to get better?” If you do not know the answers to their questions, just be honest about that, but at the same time soften the blow by reassuring the child that there are a lot of people who love him or her, including yourself. Explain to the child that his or her loved ones will always be there to take care of him or her. In addition, reassure the child that he or she is not to blame for his or her parent’s mental illness. In other words, make sure the child understands that he or she did not “make” his or her parent sick.
Take the Child to a Support Group
One of the best ways to help a young child with a mentally parent is to take him or her to a support group (for children with mentally ill parents). You may want to attend the support group with the child, especially if he or she is timid or simply too young to attend alone. It is important that this child feel loved and supported at all times, so play it by ear, as to whether or not he or she is mature enough or even old enough to attend the support group with you. Explain to the child, before attending the support group, that it is for children with “sick parents,” and that it is a chance for him or her to make new friends.
Lastly, you may want to seek counseling for this child, especially if he or she is not already attending counseling. Why? Well, it will help ensure the child’s mental health, and it will also help him or her adjust to the new circumstances (i.e. living with a new family, coping with the “ups” and “downs” of having a parent with a mental illness, conflicting emotions, stress, and/or starting a new school). Contact a licensed mental health counselor, and schedule a consultation for the child. Even if the child is old enough to “object” to counseling – insist that he or she attend. Explain to the child that the counselor is there to help him or her “feel better,” and better understand what is happening with his or her “sick parent.”
Although, it may be difficult to do this – do not place a timeline on when the child’s parent will “get better,” rather just tell the child that you do not know when he or she will “get better,” but praying and/or thinking positive thoughts will make a difference in the parent’s recovery. Also, do not promise the child that “everything will eventually be better.” Why? Well, because you don’t that for sure, and it could cause the child to develop unrealistic expectations, regarding his or her parent’s long-term mental health, and place in his or her life. Remember, the child, if he or she is old enough, may already “know” something isn’t right, so ignoring the issue, or pretending that everything is fine, will only further confuse and frustrate him or her. Reassure the child that his or her parent loves him or her, regardless of the condition.
- Dr. R. Y. Langham
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. (2008). Children of parents with mental illness. Retrieved from http://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/Facts_for_Families_Pages/Children_Of_Parents_With_Mental_Illness_39.aspx
Mental Health Gov. (2015). Talk about mental health. Retrieved from http://www.mentalhealth.gov/talk/parents-caregivers/index.html
Tartakovsky, M. (2015). Tips for parenting with a mental illness. Psych Central. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/lib/tips-for-parenting-with-a-mental-illness/0005765