The Family’s Role in a Child’s Mental Health

My journey with depression started at age 10. I went without a diagnosis for over 20 years. Part of my healing journey has included research on mental health, medication and counselling. I would like to share some things I have learned in hopes that others might find peace and healing in their journey to mental health.

I have done a lot of research on mental health and I have come across resources and tools that have helped me find hope and healing in my mental health journey.

Good mental health starts in the home

A child’s journey to good mental health and well being starts at home through loving connections, and loving relationships with parents and/or guardians. One of the best things parents can do to encourage good mental health in their children is to provide a safe, loving environment in the home.

A child’s development at a basic level, involves language, motor skills, emotional development, memory, and decision making ability. If any one of these areas is not developed properly, all areas of a child’s development can suffer.

Brain Development

Chronic stress and adversity can interfere with positive brain development. Stressed brains can’t learn and process properly. Under high levels of stress children can have problems listening, trusting and so forth.

Adversity in childhood can lead to deep depression and anxiety later in life.

“When a young child faces emotional adversity or stressors, cells in the brain release a hormone that actually shrinks the size of the brain’s developing hippocampus – altering his or her ability to process emotion and manage stress.”

Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology Tweet

Depression Warning Signs

Children with mental health issues often express their distress through behaviour such as anger, tantrums or acting very withdrawn. Signs of mental struggle can include: changes in a child’s appetite, change in sleep pattern, self-harm, social withdrawal, or excessive crying.

Parents Can Be Great Advocates

Parents are often the first detectors of mental illness, as they identify change in a child’s behavior or moods. Therefore, parents are most often the best advocates for helping children find diagnosis, professional help, support systems, community, and resources. Finding these resources will give the child his best chance at coping with, and navigating through, a mental illness in order to reach his best potential.

Advocating will not always be easy. It will take time, energy and resources to seek out best practices, medical professionals and support groups.

Parents Can Advocate By:

  • Acknowledging the courage it took for the child to talk about his struggle
  • Modelling good emotional behaviour, and talking about feelings
  • Admitting personal feelings about the situation, but choosing to put those feelings aside for now to focus on the child
  • Listening to the child, and asking him to tell you his struggle, without jumping to conclusions
  • Being curious and inquisitive, asking questions such as:“How long have you felt this way?” “Have you told anyone else about these feelings?” “Can you draw a picture that helps me understand how you are feeling?”

Diagnosis for Mental Illness

Parents should not try to diagnose or treat the child, but must seek the help of the medical community. First steps include getting the child assessed, and evaluated. In Canada, the first step in the evaluation process is through an appointment with your family doctor. At this appointment, you can request referrals to mental health professionals. If the situation is acute, and requires immediate attention, take the child to the emergency room at your local hospital.

Where to Find Mental Health Resources

Parents can look for mental health resources through local mental health agencies, universities (many universities are providing cutting edge research on mental health), online mental health organizations, and through local support groups with other parents of those struggling with mental illness.

Struggles for Parents of Children with Mental Illness

Before a child receives a mental health diagnosis, it is common for parents to feel any of the following: anger, fear, panic, minimization, shame, guilt, or helplessness. An important thing to acknowledge in this stage is that mental health is just that, it is an illness of the brain, involving many, many factors. Parents have not caused the mental illness. The child has a brain that is sick and needs help.

Hope for Those Struggling With Mental Illness

Hope for those struggling with mental illness comes as they realize that those around them care, are seeking to understand, and are committed to do whatever is needed to get help for them as a individual. As conversations around mental illness begin, collaboration can happen. If the parent herself struggles with mental illness, she can begin to teach the child what she has found helpful in her own journey.

Parents, you play such a vital role in advocating for your children and giving them the best shot at early diagnosis and recovery. Please stand up to the stigma surrounding mental illness, and share your stories with other parents and individuals. You may never know the impact your story will have, in providing hope and help for others in their mental illness journey.

This blog was written from my notes taken at the “Mental Health and the Church” conference held at Saddleback Church California, from Plenary speakers James Fix PSYD (Licensed Clinical Psychologist and ED of Psychiatric Emergency Response Team, San Diego), Alice Forrester PHD (Executive Director of Clifford Beers Child Guidance Clinic New Haven, CT), and Robin Kissell, MD (Associate Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA)