My anxiety and panic attacks started the summer before fourth grade. My parents had never dealt with mental illness and were as confused as I was about the disoder that was limiting my independence and changing the personality of the child they knew me to be. As an adult, I see how scary it was for my parents to watch me hurt and not understand what they could do to help. I hate I didn’t have the words to describe what was happening to me.
So here are some tips for people caring for children with mental illness.
1. This may not be just a phase.
This is a hard one because with children so much changes daily. Perhaps this is just a phase. But what if it’s not? It’s OK to hope for the best but don’t depend upon it. By acknowledging this may permanently be in my life, you are showing me it’s OK to be different and whatever may happen, you will love and support me.
2. Mental illness is not rational.
Please, understand when I am in the throes of an episode, no rational thought is going to calm me. The rational part of my brain has shut down and I am in survival mode. Offer your presence. Offer a hand. Offer a distraction, but don’t offer rational statements. These are often upsetting because I know I should be able to see things the way you do, but I can’t. Just accept I need to get through the next minute, day or week. Only once I’m back on stable ground can we analyze and look at better ways to handle the next episode.
3. See past my behaviors to the motivation behind them.
I was a strong-willed child to say the least. So when anxiety and panic threatened my stability, I reacted in the only way I knew how. I didn’t care who I hurt or what I did because I was simply trying to alleviate the anxiety. Children are not born knowing how to cope with mental illness. Please, be patient. We’re learning just as you’re learning. Take time to analyze why I may be acting the way I am and then gently redirect me to a more positive coping mechanism.
4. Seeking outside assistance isn’t admitting to failure.
It is impossible for a parent to know everything so don’t expect this of yourself. Sometimes we don’t know what is needed or helpful until someone else tells us. Don’t be afraid to reach out. Many mental illnesses can be managed with therapy and medication, but you will never know until you ask. The sooner, the better.
Be an advocate for me. Seek out a community for support, and show me there are other children facing the same issues. Remember, the outside support isn’t just for me. Trying to care for someone with so many unknown variables is emotionally draining and physically exhausting. So don’t be afraid to reach out.
5. This is not your fault.
If you don’t hear anything else, hear me say this is not your fault. There is nothing you did or didn’t do to cause this to happen. It is simply the way I was made, just as some people are made with a limp or born with red hair. Do not feel guilty you don’t understand what it’s like or that you feel helpless. I feel this way a lot and it’s OK. Know that by simply helping me cope and being by my side, you have done what you can. At the end of the day, that is enough for me.