Watching your child suffer with a mental health problem can be one of the most frustrating and heartbreaking experiences a parent can have. Every impulse in your body wants to “sort this out”, protect them, and solve their problems. Not being able to can feel incredibly disempowering and quite frightening. This article contains tips and perspectives from the counselling room, gained from working with parents and with young people in crisis. 

In tough times, it’s easy to become so highly focused on your child’s issues that you can start to feel obsessed and then overwhelmed. An increasingly anxious parent might experience a heightened sensitivity towards their child’s movements, behaviours and expressions which is all very understandable. However the difficult (but potentially liberating) truth is, there are some things a parent can control and some things they can’t. Sorting out one from the other can limit the amount of time spent banging your head against a brick wall.

Sitting down and writing a list of “controllables” and “uncontrollables” can help to clarify this. You may be able to offer your child the opportunity to go out with the family, but it is out of your control whether they accept. It might be within your control suggest getting some help, for example, speaking to the school or GP. However your child might not agree to go to the meeting with you. Clarifying this allows you to put your limited energy into what you can actually do, so your “controllables” list can be followed by an action plan. Some parents find it useful to do this exercise before bed to provide a sense of containment and order to all those swirling thoughts and get some well needed rest.

When your child is in the grip of a mental health problem, they may lash out in a way that feels more worrying (and upsetting) than normal adolescent behaviour. When I was a support worker for an eating disorders service, parents would come in, desperate to know “What should we say?! We can’t say anything right, everything gets a hostile reaction!” It was a relief for them to let go of worrying about saying the “right thing” and trying to avoid a hostile reaction. Parents need to give themselves permission to say what they need and want to say, accept that a hostile reaction may occur and carry on. Walking on eggshells doesn’t help anyone.

The hostility or emotional reaction comes from the part of your child that is feeling dominated by their mental health problem. Some parents found it useful to visualise the issue or condition as a separate part of their child’s personality, some even visualising a gremlin sitting on their shoulder. Parents can then choose to ignore that part and communicate with their child’s “underlying self”, the part that wants to recover and desperately needs to feel loved and receive their help. Every time they speak to their child, they address that part, inviting it to hear their genuine concern and support. Yes, they might cop an earful from the unwell part, but they can rest assured that on another level, their child has heard what they desperately needed to hear.

The cycle of change

Once you have a strategy that allows you to say what you want to say without fearing the response, have the courage and confidence to be clear and open about your concerns. It is very likely that your child is at a different stage of the cycle of change than you. Recognising where they are, and providing openings and nudges to the next stage, lets them know what help is available, what possibilities are out there, and more importantly that you are right there, walking alongside them. You might leave relevant leaflets lying around or send them links they can look at in the privacy of their own room. Then stay open, be patient and keep being there. Underneath, they will hear that you care, are concerned and more importantly, that they are not alone in this.

Young people who have come out the other side of a mental health crisis often report that just having their parents there, consistently demonstrating their interest, support and love, gave them a security and stability in the chaos. It was something to hold on to, even when the behaviour towards them at the time appeared pretty hostile and parents may have felt like they couldn’t put a foot right. Demonstrating a calm consistency and holding the hope that things will improve is what your child needs from you.

However, all this is pretty tough on the mental health of parents themselves. So the better you can take care of yourself, the more likely you will be able to provide that “light-house in the storm” type of solidity that you child needs. So, what keeps you from tearing your hair out? What keeps you from completely losing it in front of your child when you feel frustrated and desperate? Slow, calm breathing? A brisk walk?  A cuddle from a pet? A rant to a friend? What is it that helps you calm your nervous system in a heated moment and more generally? Taking care of (indeed “parenting”) yourself will provide you with the resources you need to do this difficult work for however long it takes.

So strengthen your support network. Who can you talk to about this? There can be a lot of fear about opening up and “burdening someone” but chatting it over with a trusted friend or member of the family, or potentially a professional, can reduce your sense of isolation and overwhelm. Having someone walking with you through the hard times is what you are doing for your child. Try allowing others to do the same for you, reminding you that you will get through this and you are not alone.