A young person who is looking for help is a young person who is ready to start the healing process. Listening to their voice and actions and believing that they are in pain is crucial to connecting to them and offering a bridge to recovery. If your child called you from school and said, “I fell and broke my leg” would you say, “get back to class, you’ll be fine.” If he said, I can’t take the pressure of these classes, will you say, “buck up, we all had to get through that.”
Unfortunately, we sometimes dismiss our children’s requests for help, support or compassion. We do not hear them ask us or we don’t take that opportunity to intervene for our own reasons (“I have no time for this,” others’ demands, our own denial, or we are just so tired that one more thing might break us) but with a few resources, we as adults can be available to keep the conversation going, and allow our child to find healthy solutions towards recovery.
Detecting signs of mental health issues is key to providing your child with early intervention and treatment supports. Some of these signs could include a child who is not leaving bed, hearing voices, withdrawing from activities and social environments they once enjoyed, sudden drop in grades, binge eating or not eating at all, an increased and sudden interest in death, and many more. Learning how to recognize these signs is key to successfully getting our youth access to treatment and intervention support. Early access to care can, and will, make all the difference in the long run but it takes us all to be vigilant and observant.
One of the kindest things you can demonstrate to a child is that you are going to love them through this pain to the other side.
Caring without judging – Listen first, take action later.
If you judge people, you have no time to love them
~ Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa’s very powerful words mean that what your teen needs is love and compassion, not judgment. If your teen believes she is being judged/blamed/accused for what she is telling you, she will shut down or turn to somewhere/someone else for help. Let her talk. Let him tell you what he is feeling and listen without interruption, but with compassion. Ask only what they want you to do to help, sometimes the answer is “listen” or “respect my feelings and experiences.”
Getting help for your teen can take many forms. Sometimes drastic measures are required, for instance if he or she is self-harming (cutting on himself, taking pills or drugs, or drinking in dangerous quantities); or if your teen is talking about suicide, in those moments you have to think about immediate safety for them, but if that’s not what you are seeing, do not over react, stay calm, and know there are options for interventions.
Many times, your teen is saying “I am afraid,” or overwhelmed and “I need some peace and quiet,” and maybe not immediate action. Maybe she is saying I need to be comforted and not chastised or blamed, or maybe she is asking you to help her learn more about what she is experiencing. Offer to listen or help with research. Ask about symptoms and ask about suicide (asking won’t trigger it – that’s a myth) and self-harm and tell her you really care, and you want to help.
Be a good recovery partner – a positive role-model
Be a healthy role-model so they can learn from seeing you doing. Offer to sign up for a class at NAMI for caregivers, for instance or Al Anon meetings. If your child is struggling with substance use disorder. Ask yourself if you and other adults demonstrate sobriety (really knowing the value of stopping the use of intoxicants) not just abstinence (stopping for stopping sake) or can you at least demonstrate what responsible social drinking means. Quitting nicotine, and other substances is extremely hard for anyone. Understand that while you might not have an addiction, using substances around someone who does is setting them up for failure at least until they learn to cope better with being around it.
Show your child how to be a savvy consumer – be open to getting educated about the diagnoses, ask questions, considering multiple treatment options and research the care that will work best for them. Get that mammogram or annual physical and share with your child your respect for the professionals that are helping you, while at the same time being informed about your treatment/assessment options so you can ask informed questions. If they see you putting off getting care, they will think they can, too and that is only going to compound the problem.
Care for yourself along the way – if you are exhausted, overwhelmed, or uninformed you can’t be the best caregiver for your child, and you aren’t setting a good example for them about self-care. Your healthy self-care is a great model for them, and good health is something you can do together.
Early intervention when our loved ones are navigating a mental health issue is critical. When mental health conditions go undiagnosed and when treatment is not sought, your child’s mental wellness can become worse. Being attentive is key, and taking notice of moods, behaviors, and emotions can help us understand when treatment is needed or that current treatment is not working. Symptoms of a mental health condition may not always be visible and may be stronger at sometimes more than others. If your child has been diagnosed with a mental health condition, one of the first steps caregivers should take is to educate themselves, the young person experiencing these issues, your family, and their school on the diagnosis. Always reinforce to your child that you are in their corner and they do not have to deal with this alone. Remember, being young and dealing with growing pains isn’t easy. Add on top of this a mental health condition, and your child may feel overwhelmed and helpless.
When it comes to treatment and support, allow and encourage your child to be involved in the process. When youth are involved and active in the process it can increase the likelihood of long-term success for treatment. Allowing them to be part of making treatment and support decisions can help them start feeling in control and can give them a foundation for ways to advocate on behalf of themselves in the future. Having open conversations with them on their triggers, concerns, and helpful coping strategies keeps them involved and informed while allowing them to gain comfort in being open and honest with you about their mental health.
Provide stability, safety and structure in your child’s environment
You need to be present for your child to be their ally, their advocate (at school, at their primary care or psychiatrist’s office, in the community, etc.), their champion. A child with a behavioral health condition needs stability, predictability, and structure. Not more (money, things or freedom), but a stable environment where healthy boundaries and consistent limit-setting are the expectations (sleep time, healthy eating and healthy physical activity, healthy peer relations) so that they are less likely to fall into the traps of being physically, emotionally, environmentally compromised where they will tend to make snap decisions or succumb to peer pressure.
A key component to boundary setting is consistency and relatedness. You and your kids are not going to adhere to a rule that is not achievable or only works in a sometimes and has to be broken in other instances (for example, “stay off the computer for 90 days” – well, except for homework, making appointments, or talking to grandma….). Instead, make the rule that you wanted to make – limit access to specific screen time with friends and games, etc. to a certain amount of time (one hour twice per day for instance); and don’t back down.
Partner with your child in the treatment journey. Don’t gang up against the doctor or treatment community, engage them in the recovery process, too by showing them that you and your teen want them on your team. Discuss information with your teenager in the room and practice questions before you go to the psychiatrist or psychologist, so your teen is prepared to advocate for himself and to listen to the information that the professional is offering you. Take notes, keep a log, and ask questions together to clarify expectations, understanding and instructions. This empowers your teen to be a better consumer of services and will help them build their self-confidence and to respect their treatment team when everyone is on the same page, providing a structure and support that fosters stability.
Partner with your teen to find interventions that work
Mental health interventions are like all other medical interventions. They are graduated in their potential to impact the patient and they are dependent on the individual’s response to the service/technique.
There are gradations in the type of treatment. For instance, when your car is making a funny sound, changing the entire engine without first checking to see if there are rocks in the hubcaps might seem a little extreme. But you would first take that care to a professional before you tried to diagnose it yourself, wouldn’t you?
There are some early/easy remedies for some mental health conditions. One really positive and powerful intervention is social engagement in a meaningful cause (volunteering or creating something positive). Not just for the sake of being busy, but for the sake of finding a good cause that makes one feel good about themselves. There is a lot of research that shows that giving to others is soothing/rewarding/healing to us as well, and sometimes even more so. Does your child have a caring heart? Would volunteering or leading a community project make him or her feel needed, respected, trusted? Without adding burden or too much stress? Try it.
Physical activity is also known to help clear the mind, improve sleep and breathing and even help manage anger. It does not need to be running a marathon or climbing Mt. Everest, but cardio sports and team sports can help improve outlook and self-confidence.
Eastern-Asian martial arts provide structure and self-control, as well as have the cardio and physical component that a lot of children respond to with enthusiasm. Circus arts combine creativity with physical endurance and skill building.
Meditation and yoga are excellent tools for teaching how to manage anxiety, negative self-talk and relaxation from internal and external stressors.
Talk therapy can come in a few different versions as well. A good therapist will engage your teen through one-on-one discussion, teaching him or her to express their emotions in a safe environment and then learn to “cope” with the feelings that accompany those memories and thoughts. You could also find great benefit in group therapy where the teens themselves, through guided conversations, share their experiences and positive coping skills with each other, giving the anxious teen the safety of being in a group and not being the only focus at the session, while also hearing the lessons that others are learning. Finding the right therapist or group is not always instant success. Matching the right setting/caregiver to your teen is important and recognizing that you might need to help them find that special therapist for them is key to being a good recovery partner.
Medication is also available but is most effective when combined with other interventions such as learning coping skills for managing emotions, and negative self-talk, and how to stay as healthy and strong as possible in daily positive activities. Giving your child psychiatric medication might be exactly what is needed, but with every intervention there are potential side effects. Not every medication for a given diagnosis is the best medication for your teen, so you might have to try a few before you get one to work.