If you are under a lot of stress, and just getting started looking for help, this basic advice may help you understand your situation quickly and ease your greatest concerns.
You may feel alone, but millions are struggling too.
Parents around the world feel alone in the struggle to raise a troubled child. It’s not about the parents. No matter what the age of the child or their diagnosis, mental problems are a tragic human condition. Behavioral disorders cross all populations, from all walks of life, and all educational levels, cultures, beliefs, and races.
It’s no one’s fault.
- It’s not your fault. You’re doing the best you can. Be kind to yourself. Parenting like this is hard.
- It’s not the child’s fault. He or she would do better if he or she could. It’s a genuine disability.
- It may not even be in the brain. Medical conditions can cause serious behavior problems.
Don’t obsess on “Why?” Instead, think “What can I do?”
Knowing why will not help your parenting! You can start to help without a diagnosis or known cause. The steps to returning order in your life and home are the same for all families, no matter what the child’s age, diagnosis, or cause for his or her troubled behavior. There are many approaches and most of them work very well.
Causes for Children’s Behavioral Disorders
- Family history of mental disorders
- Trauma history
- Toxins, marijuana and other drugs
- Diabetes, epilepsy, thyroid dysfunction, and other medical conditions
- Stressful living conditions (divorce, poverty, domestic violence)
- Brain damage: injury, fetal exposure to addictive substances
- Unknown causes! Research is still discovering important information.
You can handle this.
You can raise a difficult child and keep yourself and the rest of your family safe. But this is important to know: your natural parenting instincts for raising children, like incentives and consequences, rarely work for troubled children, if at all. Each child needs a customized parenting approach based on his or her unique strengths and challenges.
You deserve respect and support.
This is the toughest parenting job of them all. You deserve lots of praise for trying to be the best parent you can be, yet many get little positive support and lots of unwanted advice. Your child has a serious disability, and your family deserves the same compassion and support as any other family with a disabled child. Mental disorders can be fatal, and have higher mortality rates than childhood cancers.
You have the courage and backbone. (You really do.)
You wouldn’t be seeking answers here otherwise. It takes courage to admit you’re overwhelmed, or that your child has a serious illness, or to face your grief for your child.
Take care of yourself FIRST
The task you face may require superhuman backbone and discipline, patience, forgiveness, and relentlessness. You are about to run a 1000 mile marathon, row across an ocean, and climb a mountain. Set aside all non-critical life demands and take care of yourself. Your mental and emotional wellness is crucial. A drowning person cannot save another drowning person. Once you are OK, you will figure a lot out on your own.
Ease your stress (these really work)
- Do something that makes you happy, indulge, steal moments away from your family.
- Talk with someone who won’t judge you. You need to process and vent without someone who just listens.
- Read something that helps you escape reality for a while.
- Take a coffee break, or a vacation, even if it’s brief.
- See a therapist for yourself, to learn ways to cope and feel better about yourself.
- Get treatment, an antidepressant for a few months to help you catch up
- Practice daily mindfulness such as yoga or DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy)
- Let your child ‘win’ small battles over unimportant things
Get a life!
You and other family members must take time out to do something enjoyable. Set aside the troubled child’s needs for a while and do what you want to do. This is not selfish or neglectful. There’s only so much your family can sacrifice.
Surround yourself with positive people.
Good people are good medicine for stress. If you have ‘friends’ who are needy, toxic, or draining, avoid or remove them from your life. A good friend once taught me how to identify people who’ll help in times of distress. She said, “Those who matter don’t mind, and those who mind don’t matter.”
Have a S.A.F.E. attitude every day
As a parent, make these your family priorities:
- Safety First – ALL will be kept safe from pain, fear, or violence, including visitors and pets.
- Acceptance – Accept things the way they are now and move forward from here.
- Family Balance – Not too much for one, not too little for another.
- Expectations that are realistic – Progress will be slow–one step forward one step back. Take things one day at a time. Limit pressuring him or her to achieve your desired outcomes. In some aspects you will need to lower the bar.
Balance your life.
Don’t starve yourself, your family, and basic life needs. Look for ways to reduce the time and energy spent on your troubled child. They will be OK; they may even get better.
Your life and family will not be ‘normal’ but that’s OK
- Families with a physically disabled or sick child share your concerns too and make many sacrifices. Their lives will never be normal either.
- You may not see challenges faced by seemingly ‘normal’ families. People often hide their struggles, just like you probably do now.
Treat the symptoms, not the cause
Your goal is not to cure your child, but to reduce their troubled behavior and teach them to self-manage. This is an entirely different approach instead of endlessly attempting to correct behavior. Teach your child how to care for their mental health by training them to pay attention to unsafe moods/feelings and beliefs that worsen their wellbeing. Make it easy for them to ask for help. Show them actions they can take. Your child may need self-management of their symptoms for the rest of their life.
Examples of Symptom Management
- All disorders – Need regular sleep for 8 – 10 hours a day; need diets that avoid “fast food;” need exercise; need positive social interactions
- ADD, ADHD – Does best in a highly structured and scheduled life. Regimen works better than freedom.
- Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) – Same as above, but take on only one issue at a time so enforcement is easier.
- Schizophrenia/Schizoaffective Disorder – Ask them what they need to lower stress and anxiety, then help them get it. It may not make sense to you; it only needs to work.
- Bullying – Bullies are usually victims and vice versa. Reduce the triggers that cause bully behavior or confront the bully, and teach a bullying victim self-protection skills. ( ADD, ADHD, and ODD are most often bullies and victims.)
- Depression – Provide stimulation, contact with others, conversation, exercise, responsibility for another’s care. Ask them what helps.
- Bipolar – Handle depression like the above. Handle mania depending on the symptoms. If they have positive or happy mania: ignore things that are harmless but watch for increasing extremes; stimulate with safe activities. If they are irritable & angry: redirect the anger into high-energy activities that are harmless (wear them out). Help them recognize their condition and respond appropriately.
- Explosions – Create a safe place for a child to rage as long as they need, where nothing can be damaged. Talk about the cause later when your child is calm, and make a pact and negotiate how certain things can be handled in the future.
- ADHD kids do not do well in a home that’s chaotic, neither do kids with autism or schizophrenic disorders.
- Children with bipolar symptoms get bored easily and need help harnessing their energy. Stay alert to risk-taking, anger, loud fast speech, explosive energy, and redirect it away from family members and pets.
- Children with depression withdraw into their dark place and stay there; they need light and uplifting sensory experiences.
- Anxious children should not be forced to face their fears, however, they should be nudged to pay attention to their fears and try to tolerate them.
“We could only mentally plan for 3 hours at a time, then we got to where we could plan a day, and now it’s 3 days.”
–parents of two young boys with ADHD
Children are more powerfully affected by your tone of voice than by the words you say. This is according to research on immature or impulsive children and teens. Controlling your tone of voice may be difficult to do if you’re upset, which is understandable, so practice what and how you’ll speak when in a tense situation.
SAFETY: Plan ahead for WHEN things go wrong
When your family is facing an uncontrollable situation, have a crisis plan to turn to, and write it down ahead of time. Ideas:
- Read “Call 911 – Make a crisis plan for your troubled child”
- Download this handout: “How to Make a Crisis Plan.”
- Or this handout: “How to Call 911.”
Your plan simply says what everyone should do. All family members should contribute ideas to this plan, including the affected child if appropriate. You will be so glad you did. When things fall apart and get scary, everyone will know what to do or what not to do. This will ease the emotional distress and allow quicker emotional recovery afterwards.
Definition of a crisis
A crisis is when someone gets hurt, or is at risk of being hurt–a child might attack someone, destroy property, run away, cut themselves, attempt suicide, or make specific plans for harming themselves or others. A crisis is when a child’s behavior is persistently extreme and abnormal, such as excessive agitation, hearing voices or hallucinating, sleeplessness, screaming or very inappropriate behavior. A crisis is when they are suffering. Consider if they are threatening harm versus if they have the means to harm at hand (e.g. weapons, drugs, etc.) and a history of harm. That’s a crisis.
Ideas for a crisis plan
Appoint tasks to family members so they know what to do and what is expected. If a crisis can’t be managed, call 911 and report a mental health crisis and a need for emergency services. A child may need to go to the hospital. There is usually a local mental health crisis number to call for immediate advice or connection to emergency services.
- Have back-up: other family members or understanding neighbors or friends. It helps to know that someone will show up when you’re overwhelmed.
- Remove all means of harm or have a “lock down” plan (barricading members in a room for their safety, sending a sibling to a neighbor’s…)
- After the crisis – Talk with a friend, or get professional help such as therapy for yourself. Take a “mental health day” to tend to your and everyone else’s well-being (go out to eat, watch a comedy, walk in nature).
About house rules and chores
They should be Few, Simple, and Fair (parents follow them too)
No more than 2 or 3 really important ones; it’s easier to enforce and less stressful. Let some things go.
Specific (who, what, when, where, why, how)
- Have at least one meal together at the table every day.
- Limit time on digital technology to 2 hours max (except for homework).
- Settle 15 minutes in your room after arriving home from school
- Get 30 minutes of exercise indoor or outdoor every day.
- Clean the dinner dishes by 7 pm
- No abuse or damage: anger is OK but not screaming, verbal abuse, or door slamming, etc.
All children need these
- Adequate sound sleep, cool dark room, no screen time before bed
- Good diet: lower in fats and sugars; higher in fruits, nuts, vegetables, and lean protein
- There opinion heard. You aren’t required to comply, just listen and acknowledge
- Appreciation for the strengths they exhibit
What helps different disorders (examples)
- A bipolar child with mania needs a safe way to expend energy, and opportunities for creativity.
- An autistic child might need a low-stimulation calming room, and repetitious thinking tasks
- A depressed child needs social contact or other stimulus to be drawn out of their interior.
- A defiant child needs repeated, immediate enforcement on only one limit at a time
- An ADHD child needs schedules and lines not to cross, and opportunities for creativity and multitasking.
- All children need an emotionally safe and supportive environment.
What does not help
- A noisy chaotic home
- Fighting among family members
- Teasing or bullying at home or school,
- Pressure to manage more than they can handle,
- Lack of sleep and exercise, fast food diets, and
- Ignoring or denying a child’s genuine needs or problems they can’t handle
Techniques for raising your child
- Observe their behavior without emotions or judgment. Notice when they do well and make note of the situation: in the morning? during a meal? around lots of activity or when alone? Now pay attention to what makes behavior worse, the triggers. Put your best energy into the former, and avoid anything difficult in the latter.
- Remove triggers that set off unsafe or inappropriate behavior. Triggers can be simple things like transitions from one environment to another, which feels to your child like “changing channels” too quickly. Example: when going to or from school; or when getting into and out of the car. Ensure they are not being teased by siblings or by other upsets.
- Look for little things that calm or improve your child’s behavior. Some children do better when in a quiet room alone (schizophrenia, autism, anxiety). Some children and teens need music and activity around them to settle their nerves and help them focus (ADHD). Some do better with rigorous exercise (depression), or some need to do yoga poses or keep their hands busy (anxiety disorders).
- Catch your child or teen doing something good and point it out.
- Negotiate. This may seem counterintuitive, but yes, you can negotiate with your child without giving in. This technique is called Collaborative Problem Solving or CPS, and it works remarkable well. Check out these books by Ross W. Greene.
Your highest priorities
Your problems are too numerous to solve all at once, so go for the critical priorities:
- YOU. Your well-being and physical and mental health
- Family safety
- Your income and other basic necessities
- Your troubled child
Admit it if you need your own mental health support
“I only cried like ugly-cried for 6 times today, and that was good.” –Kelly
Many parents bravely try to forge on even when they’re clearly not getting anywhere. Seek and use mental health supports like these:
- A therapist and possibly medication. It’s the emotional crutch you need as long as your emotional ‘leg’ is broken. Therapy can help so much!
- A support group. There are parent support groups out there for parents and family members of someone who is mentally ill, like mine. If it’s only for adults, still go. To find groups in the U.S., look up National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) www.nami.org and the Federation of Families for children’s Mental Health (FFCMH) www.ffcmh.org. If you can’t find a parent group, then join a social group that’s very positive and supportive of its members–it can be anything from a religious community to an art class to a breakfast club.
- For one-on-one help, I am also available.
There is no one right way.
Be flexible and adjust your approach.
Trust your judgment and intuition. It’s most often right.
Healthy families will have these.
- A couple stands by each other and supports each other; they put the stability of their relationship first, even if they don’t always agree. If the parents are divorced, they still try to work together on the child’s behalf.
- Parents regularly reach out to others they trust, and avoid those who take their energy or bring them down.
- Siblings are supported and protected by the parent(s), and given attention and appreciation for what makes them special. They are asked about their feelings, and helped to take care of themselves and avoid their troubled brother or sister.
- Pets are appreciated and cared for.
- Basic needs are met: healthful food, a maintained living space, clean clothing, income, sleep, and play.