Recently while shopping with my five-year-old daughter, Allie, my husband and I encountered a common family scenario. As we progressed through the aisles of the store, we saw Allie’s behavior transform from angelic to intolerable. By the end of our thirty-minute expedition, she was laying under the cart, growling at us, and, at the self-check out line, she began to scream as she manically tried to scan the items over the checkout bar and then shove the items into plastic bags. Daddy thankfully intervened and tried to take Allie out of the store when she broke free of his grasp and quickly dashed into the aisles. Of course, there was what felt like 400 other suburban moms behind us in line looking on in horror.
As my husband went to get Allie and take her out of the store, I was at the checkout counter feeling mortified. I just had to say something. I looked right at the parents in line behind me and kindly said, “I am so sorry, but my daughter is mentally ill and sometimes we just lose control of her.” There! The secret is out. I couldn’t believe that I said it. Afterwards, the eyes of the other parents turned with compassion as Allie screamed by them as she was being escorted out of the store by her father. And then, the mom behind me said, “Is she ADHD? My daughter is ADHD.” I looked at her, smiled, and said. “No, my daughter is bipolar,” but I thought, “Wow, she gets it.”
Parenting a child with mental health exceptionalities is complicated. One in five children has a diagnosable mental illness with one in ten having a severe mental illness. These illnesses can sometimes onset as young as three years old. Left untreated, these illnesses can lead to school failure, family conflict, drug abuse, violence, and suicide, leaving a major economic and emotional impact on our society.
I am commonly asked, “How do you know the difference between a mental health problem and a behavioral one?” A mental health disorder is a health condition marked by alterations in thinking, mood, or behavior that causes distress or impairs a person’s ability to function. Although any condition that impairs the mental and emotional functioning of a child is included, common conditions that fall into this category are ADHD, mood or psychotic disorders, anxiety, depression, forms of autism, and TIC disorders.
A child’s decline in school performance, sudden change in grades, regular worry, refusal to take part in activities, nightmares, fidgeting, aggression, running away, tantrums that last hours, depression, irritability, and difficulty separating may be signs of an impeding mental health condition. If you suspect your child is exhibiting signs of mental illness:
Consult knowledgeable professionals—Early treatment interventions are essential to helping your child. It is important that you seek out opinions from professionals trained in childhood mental illness, and develop a well-rounded team that is supportive of you and your family.
Become educated—Being told that your child has a mental illness is scary. Once you’re finished freaking out, educate yourself and your family about the illness. The more you know, the easier it will be to manage your child.
Enhance your parenting skills—Parenting a child with mental illness requires specialized parenting skills and that those skills be superior. Because children with mental illness can be difficult, they are statistically at high risk for child abuse. Caregivers often become frustrated, not understanding the behaviors that they are seeing. Your skills, compassion, and mannerisms must fit the child that you are parenting.
Enhance your child’s strengths—All children have strengths. Don’t let your child’s illness consume their life. Finding things that your child is good at can help boost self-esteem and release stress in a positive manner.
Know your child’s limits—Don’t set yourself or your child up for failure. Avoid areas or activities that you know will agitate your child. If that is not possible to do, take someone else with you who is on your team in case a problem occurs.
Be an advocate for your child—Children with mental illness fall under the protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act. They are entitled to reasonable accommodations to help them be successful in every environment, including school.
If you have not signed up for the upcoming FREE Special Needs Event: “Shut Up About Your Perfect Kid” with Patty Konjoian and Gina Gallagher, then do it now before all the spaces are taken!
By Nikki Woller