7 Secrets to Sanity If You Have a Child with Mental Health Needs

Family mindfulness

I was sitting at a picnic table with my spouse on vacation in the mountains of Colorado about 20 years ago. The sky was blue, the grass and leaves were green, the sun was bright. Breaking through the beautiful picture, however, was a child having a huge tantrum.

The child appeared to be about 8 years old and could not hold it together any longer. He was with a woman, who I presumed was his mother, screaming and yelling and pounding the dirt with his hands and feet whilst laying on the ground. His mother looked so overwhelmed and embarrassed.

I quietly went up to her and said, “Hey mom, you are doing a great job. Anything I can do to help?” She soon broke down into tears and told me her son had autism. I told her not to worry because we’ve all had tough days from time to time. Just a few words of support seemed to help. We never introduced ourselves, and even though I had no children at the time, I think that mom felt some small bond of support from me.

Lessons Learned About Parents

Often, I remembered that situation when my own children had tantrums in public. For me, those situations were rare, usually at the end of a long day or after too many errands. On one occasion, when my oldest tantrummed in the checkout lane of the local health food store, a sweet lady patted my shoulder saying, “Hang in there mom. You’re doing great.” Those words really helped me too.

I’ve worked with over a few thousand families at this point in my career, all who have dealt with stressful situations related to their child’s mental health. I’ve witnessed parents who have to work split shifts because their child couldn’t handle a childcare setting, as well as many parents who sacrificed benefits and salary, so they had time to give their children what they need. There were also parents whose insurance didn’t cover mental health services, and parents who received angry letters from their school district for too many tardies or absences. I’ve witnessed several parents who have to advocate for their child educationally and emotionally. Those parents are brave and admirable, and because it is so hard, they can also struggle with taking care of themselves at times.

So how can you improve your sanity if you have a child with mental health needs?

Find Social Support from People Who “Get It”

It is hard to go it alone. And parents of children with mental health needs often suffer alone, trying very hard to appear like everything is ok.

Everyone needs a person to share their feelings with once in a while. If people don’t know, they can’t help. Find someone who will understand what you are going through and can support you without judgment or critique. Once people understand, they can become part of the solution. It could be a good friend, or another parent of a child with similar concerns. Some people find comfort with a traditional support group, or even an online support group. A supportive therapist can also be helpful for a parent. It is very important that you reach out and get support from someone who understands what you are going through on a regular basis. Everyone is entitled to say, “This is hard for me. This is what I need help with.”

Use Self-Compassion

Be kind to yourself. Remember that your job is important and rewarding, but also tough. Resist the urge to blame yourself or feel guilty. Many parents feel guilt because they feel like they did something to cause their children’s symptoms. They may feel guilty because their children inherited some of the same concerns they have. Even if those things are true, there is no sense in feeling responsible. All you can do is move forward. Tell yourself, “May I be happy, may I be healthy, and may I be at peace.” Feel free to click here to learn more about self-compassion.

Exercise for enjoyment

Even 10 minutes of exercise every day can help provide a release for stress and increase serotonin. I don’t mean hard-core fitness (unless that works for you). But take a few minutes for yourself to move your body and stay healthy. It could be a quick walk around the block, or a few yoga poses. Whatever makes YOU feel better. If your body is healthy, your brain is healthy too. For me, being outside, even if it is cold helps. The fresh air and nature soothe me, as well as the exercise.

Remember that not all parenting strategies will work for your child

Marching to your own drummer is a good (and often necessary) way to go. The path that works for you is the only one that matters. I remember when my oldest son had colic (for a very loooong time). Everyone that knew him seemed to have different ways of soothing him (or advice on what worked for their child). Often, what worked for one person didn’t work for another (usually me).

At first, I felt incredibly guilty that other people could soothe him with music or noise, but for me, it didn’t work. But, when I gave myself permission to be me, it was much easier. I could soothe him with baths, and gentle bouncing, and very slowly walking with him in a sling. I sung him Christmas carols for an entire year. (Jingle Bells and Silent Night almost always worked).

The point is, every parent and every child is different. Find what works for you. You are your own person with your own talent and wisdom. It is healthy to ask for advice from a therapist or psychologist, as they likely can help you sort it out sooner, but they should work with you and your child to help.

Eliminate the “shoulds.” Try not to please others or worry what others will think

“I should just be grateful.” “I shouldn’t be so angry with him.” “I should know how to do this. Everyone else can do this.” Just get rid of those “should” phrases. Those phrases are based on expectations of someone else, not you or your child. Rather, enjoy your child, enjoy the moment, and let things unfold. Find joy and contentment in small and simple things, and don’t worry about other people or other standards. Create the yardstick that works for you. If others find fault or judge you, don’t listen. As hard as it is to do, you have to remember that they are not you. Only you are. They do not live your life, nor should they judge it. Remember that people who judge others negatively are often unhappy people.

Delegating is necessary to survive

Don’t expect to do it all. You can’t. You and your spouse may need to ask for or hire help at times to get things done. When my oldest was colicky, I had a college student help me for an hour a day chopping vegetables and folding laundry. I had my groceries delivered for years.

As my son grew older (and still had health problems), his dad had to travel on business trips quite often. During these times, I would often board the dog with someone I trusted. I just couldn’t take care of them both by myself.

Giving yourself permission to hire someone to drive your child to lessons or school is ok. It is also ok to find a neighborhood tween or teen to play with your child while you make dinner. Furthermore, finding a responsible friend or relative to help your child with homework can be lifesaving at times. You will need the help. Take it.

Use Humor and Laugh

sanity if you have a child with mental health needs

This may be the most important advice of all. Try to find humor in the tough things. If not, just try to find humor. Have a few favorite movies that make you laugh on hand at all times. Have comic books on hand or clip out cartoons for the refrigerator. Keep some joke books around the house or in the car. We had a silly joke book that we kept in the car when our kids were young. It helped a lot when we were stuck in traffic with crying kids and there was nothing else we could do. Even having some favorite You Tube clips can be helpful.

Learn to laugh at your own mistakes and model this for your kids. Sometimes, I will quote references from the movie “Up” when I forget something or get distracted. My kids are the first to say, “Mom, squirrel!” Or I will say, “I’m old and infirm. I can’t do that.” And then we giggle. One of my proudest moments was when I heard my nine-year-old singing to himself, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming” when he was doing long division.

Whatever makes you laugh, use it. There is no shame in laughter or humor. It helps us heal, and it helps us all get through the tough times.

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