July 21, 2020

10 Tips for Communicating and Supporting a Child Diagnosed with a Mental Health Condition

1 in 6 children between ages 6-17 struggle with a mental health condition

As a parent, you want to offer the best life and opportunities for your children. After all, they give you purpose and a sense of unconditional love. 

But, it’s no surprise that parenting can be a tiring and thankless job. It can be time-consuming, expensive, exhausting, and downright frustrating. And while isn’t a tried-and-true instruction manual, many people will try to tell you what to do! 

Likewise, all children have unique needs. But what happens when your child has a mental health condition? How do you avoid saying or doing the wrong thing? What kind of support or guidance can you provide? Let’s break down the top tips. 

1. Look For The Warning Signs 

Has your child felt off lately? Do they seem more withdrawn, irritable, or temperamental than usual? Are they suddenly struggling in school or losing interest in their favorite activities? Parents are on the frontlines of understanding and interpreting their child’s behavior. After all, you know their quirks and nuances. If your intuition tells you that something feels strange, pay attention. 

Some common warning signs indicating a possible mental health condition include:

  • Persistent and chronic sadness
  • Withdrawing from friends, school, or social activities
  • Extreme irritability and frequent rage outbursts
  • Dramatic changes in appearance
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Sleep problems
  • Ongoing physical complaints (headaches, stomachaches, nausea, chest tightness)
  • Talking about death or suicide
  • Self-harm (cutting, burning, headbanging)
  • Panic attacks
  • Strange, erratic behavior

Having one of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean your child has a mental health condition. Mental health conditions refer to a chronic pattern of several symptoms that impacts one’s self-esteem and overall functioning.

2. Learn as Much as You Can about the Condition

Research shows that 1 in 6 children between ages 6-17 struggle with a mental health condition. Below are common childhood mental health conditions.

(Each disorder is linked to one of our original series or resource on the topic.)

If your child has been diagnosed with one of these conditions, your first step is educating yourself. Read up on the diagnosis. Speak to a therapist, doctor, or another mental health professional. 

Knowledge can help you to remain objective when understanding and intervening with your child. While your emotions matter, having the proper education can keep you from feeling derailed and discouraged during this process.

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3. Seek Your Own Support

Many parents sacrifice some of their identity when raising their children. If your child struggles with a mental health condition, you may feel even more lost or stretched thin. 

Remember that your self-care matters in this process. You’re allowed to carve out time for yourself. An emotionally healthy parent prioritizes their own needs and boundaries. If you constantly neglect yourself, you’ll likely find yourself in a challenging cycle of fatigue, resentment, and self-loathing. In this cycle, you won’t be doing yourself or your child any favors.

You need support during this time. This support can come from a variety of avenues including:

  • Working with an individual therapist
  • Attending a support group for parents
  • Reaching out to understanding friends and family
  • Connecting with a spiritual or religious group

Ideally, you want people who are compassionate and nonjudgmental. These are people you can lean on when you’re struggling. By allowing yourself to be vulnerable, you can release some of the tension you experience. 

4. Practice Positive Reinforcement

We subconsciously choose our behaviors based on the consequences. Moreover, no matter our age or life circumstances, we all love rewards. Think about it. Would you really go to your job everyday if you didn’t earn a paycheck? 

Children learn about the power of positive reinforcement from a young age. They can understand that completing a task may result in a reward. They know that doing their homework earns them good grades. 

Regarding your child’s mental health condition, positive reinforcement means acknowledging the victories and successes. It means focusing on what they’re doing well instead of highlighting your concerns. 

For example, let’s say your child has oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). He’s often argumentative and belittling to his younger sister. If you take on the approach of fostering positive reinforcement, you’re going to praise every positive counterpoint. That means you’re going to applaud when he shares with his sister or lets her have the last cookie. You’re going to acknowledge even the smallest positive behaviors like him coloring next to her without causing a scene.

Over time, positive reinforcement creates an internal reward system. Children want to please their parents. However, you must praise them when they do just that!

5. Create Appropriate Consequences 

Consequences have a bad reputation. Most parents confuse them for punishment. But if your child has a mental health condition, consequences implement your boundaries. Consequences show your child that you refuse to enable unwanted behavior.

To be effective, the consequences must be age-appropriate. For infants and toddlers, the word “no” simply suffices. For older toddlers, a quick timeout for unwanted behavior (biting, kicking, hitting) works. Children between ages 3-5 are receptive to rules. For example, if you tell your child that they can’t have a second cookie, they’re able to understand what you’re saying. That said, don’t punish behavior before discussing your expectations. Timeouts and consequences related to taking away toys can work well for children between ages 6-10. Finally, adolescents and teenagers understand how rules and discipline works. It’s your job to be clear with your communication and your expectations. They should know what the consequence will be if they break a rule.

Furthermore, research continues to shed light on the emotional dangers of corporal punishment measures like spanking. Inflicting pain to a child doesn’t eliminate unwanted behavior. Instead, it tends to lead to increased aggression and antisocial behavior. It also tends to result in children feeling afraid of their parents, which jeopardizes the love and respect essential for healthy parenting.

6. Manage Your Reactivity and Emotions

Many parents react impulsively rather than respond appropriately. They yell, attack, criticize, or blame. Often, these reactions come from a place of fear. When you feel threatened or scared, you try to diffuse the tension.

Children are not miniature adults. They don’t always understand what you want. They can’t just read your mind. Likewise, their brains are not fully developed. They lack the emotional regulation skills needed to manage difficult emotions. 

When you feel stressed, pause. Take a breath. If possible, remove yourself from the room. If your child is old enough to understand, let them know that you need time to recollect your thoughts. 

As a parent, it’s your job to remain calm and collected whenever possible. You don’t want your child to perceive you as hostile or erratic. If you’re inconsistent or explosive, children learn to withdraw, guard themselves, lie, or act out.

7. Ask Open-Ended Questions and Avoid Making Assumptions

Parents can be a tremendous ally for children with mental health conditions. However, many times, parents feel preoccupied because they think they need to act perfectly. They agonize over asking the right questions or creating the right dialogue.

Perfection doesn’t exist. It’s more important for a parent to exhibit curiosity, compassion, and support over their child’s well-being. Your child needs to feel safe with you. If they don’t, that needs to be your first priority.

Instead of asking if your child had a good day at school, consider an open-ended question like, what was the best part of your day? Instead of asking if they’re feeling sad, ask, how do you feel about this situation right now? 

Although you may know your child well, you want to avoid making assumptions about their thoughts or feelings. Children want to feel independent. They want to channel their own voices. If you speak or think for them, they’ll eventually shut down. 

Instead of making assumptions, divert to asking questions. They may mumble or only offer a few sentences. While this can be frustrating, don’t push. The more you demonstrate that you accept them for their current state, the safer they’ll feel to be vulnerable.

8. Teach and Encourage Healthy Coping Skills

All mental health conditions entail a pattern of ineffective or maladaptive behaviors. These behaviors are your child’s efforts to manage their emotions. They’re not meant to hurt or frustrate you explicitly. 

You can start teaching your child healthy coping skills from a young age. Research shows that even preschoolers can benefit from a few minutes of meditation each day. If you already meditate, encourage your child to join you in your practice.

You can also encourage other healthy coping skills. Some common ones include:

  • Artistic, creative expression (writing, drawing, singing, playing music)
  • Physical activity
  • Relaxation exercises (deep breathing, yoga stretches, holding a pet)
  • Reaching out for positive support (calling a friend)
  • Gratitude exercises (writing down gratitude, prayer)
  • Distraction exercises (taking a shower, going for a nap, eating a snack)

Remember that doing can be more significant than teaching. In other words, kids watch what you do even more than what you teach. If you model using healthy coping skills, they may follow suit themselves.

9. Be a Role Model for Emotional Health

You may struggle with a mental health condition yourself. It’s not uncommon for these issues to pass from generation to generation. Don’t blame yourself.

Healthy modeling sets a framework for children. Parents act as the first templates for how to function in the world. Your child observes everything you do, even when you aren’t looking. This isn’t meant to scare you- it’s meant to be empowering! By modeling healthy behavior, you can demonstrate appropriate responses to a variety of situations.

Let’s say your daughter struggles with an eating disorder. She scrutinizes her food and outwardly criticizes her body. Some parents are quick to try to challenge their children. Some parents would tell their daughter to “just eat” and that her body “looks fine.” But a parent who follows principles of healthy role modeling might practice and demonstrate acceptance for their own body. They might strive to make mealtimes engaging and pleasurable. 

Your job, of course, isn’t to be an ideal pinnacle for mental health. That may not be realistic. However, you should consider how your actions and communication affect your child. If you always turn to a glass of wine to cope with feeling sad, your child may internalize that he needs to escape uncomfortable emotions. If you ridicule your spouse for making a mistake, your child may interpret that she needs to be perfect at all costs.

10. Consider Family Therapy

Individual therapy can help children sort out their uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. It can also help them learn and develop healthy coping skills for managing distress. 

However, mental health conditions don’t just affect children. They impact the entire family system. Likewise, the relationships and dynamics within the family can exacerbate your child’s mental health symptoms. For example, if you’ve been under more stress than usual, your child may take on this anxiety. If you and your spouse are arguing, your child may feel depressed or withdrawn. 

All families have blindspots. Likewise, all families have some difficulties with communication. Family therapy can help all of you learn how to:

  • Listen more actively and effectively
  • Implement healthy boundaries
  • Increase affection
  • Identify and capitalize your family strengths
  • Support one another during times of difficulty

Family therapy isn’t about blaming one person for all the family’s problems. Instead, your therapist will identify how each member plays a role in the family’s functioning. Your therapist will teach each of you what to do differently to improve the family system.

Final Thoughts

Parents have an essential role in fostering the emotional health of their children. And while mental illness isn’t your fault, you can be a part of your child’s recovery.

Be patient. Practice kindness and compassion. Educate yourself. Aim to become part of the solution instead of only focusing on the problem.

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Disclaimer: This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your healthcare provider. This is only a brief summary of general information. It does NOT include all information about conditions, illnesses, injuries, tests, procedures, treatments, therapies, discharge instructions or lifestyle choices that may apply to you. You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

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