Receiving a diagnosis of a mental illness or disorder for a child can trigger a range of reactions from parents and caregivers. For some, this feedback brings relief, clarity, or confirmation of what they already suspected. For others, it brings devastation, fear, guilt, shame and even denial. While learning to accept and adjust to this new reality can be difficult, take time and is not always a linear process, it can also be a new beginning for children and families – one where the adults, equipped with a better understanding of their children’s needs, can provide children with the support they need for recovery or to improve functioning.
Making Room For Grief & Loss
Regardless of whether a diagnosis is welcomed or not by caregivers, some sense of grief and loss is commonly experienced. All parents and caregivers have hopes and dreams for their children and hold a vision of what the future might hold for them, which typically does not include an illness or disability. Receiving a diagnosis can be experienced as a loss of these hopes and dreams. Left with uncertainty and questions about how a diagnosis might impact or limit children can lead to significant worry and fear. It’s important to make space for difficult feelings and for parents and caregivers to give themselves permission to grieve the losses – big or small. Acknowledging these and naming them are important parts of processing these emotional experiences that are very real and steps that are often needed before parents and caregivers can accept and adjust to a new way of seeing or understanding their children.
Embracing The Opportunities That Come With Acceptance
While acceptance of a diagnosis can be difficult and take time, it creates choices and opportunities to forge a new way forward. A diagnosis can put a name to what’s been hidden in plain sight and provide a map that helps guide a family’s next steps, helps clarify treatment needs, and gives parents a framework for better understanding their children’s strengths, needs, and difficulties.
Enhanced Parent-Child Attunement
When parents have a better understanding of what’s contributing to their children’s distress and/or challenging (and often frustrating) behaviours, it supports greater attunement to children’s underlying needs which helps to improve parent-child relationships. A better understanding of children’s functioning can help parents not to take their children’s behaviour personally and experience more moments where they are able to look at their children with joy and wonderment instead of frustration.
Accessing More Effective Parent Strategies
Parents and caregivers often feel more effective and confident in responding to their children’s needs when they are equipped with appropriate strategies and understand the rationale behind these strategies. This, in turn, helps children to feel understood and increases their receptiveness to parent support. Understanding children’s challenging behaviours in the context of their diagnoses can also help parents maintain greater empathy for their children in high-stress parenting moments. This can help parents settle their own unhelpful reactions that get triggered placing them in a better position to respond to their children’s needs with greater confidence and calm.
A diagnosis can empower parents and caregivers to advocate for their children’s needs across environments, including schools and community activities. It can support them in educating teachers, coaches, and other adults in their children’s support networks and advocate for any necessary accommodations or supports needed to facilitate greater success for their children in different environments. When children experience success, it helps them recognize their strengths and enhances their sense of mastery which supports the development of a positive sense of self.
Through struggle comes growth. There are often unexpected gifts that come from parenting children living with or recovering from a mental illness or disorder. These can be honoured without minimizing the hardships of this parenting journey. The challenges involved can build resilience and strength. They can also lead to increased compassion, grace, and empathy for others, among other unexpected gifts.
Building A Community Of Support
Parenting is often viewed more as an individual responsibility rather than a collective responsibility in North America compared to other cultures. This can lead parents and caregivers to feel isolated and unsupported, especially those parenting children living with a mental illness or disorder. Accepting a child’s diagnosis is only the first step in what is often a challenging parenting journey. Helping children to accept and understand their diagnoses and cope with stigma are among some of the additional parenting responsibilities caregivers are faced with.
It takes a village to raise a child – African Proverb
Building a community of support can help reduce parents’ sense of isolation and help parents and caregivers maintain their own mental health while supporting the mental health needs of their children. A diagnosis can help parents seek out different sources of support to build their support networks. This can include professional support from doctors and mental health professionals, natural supports from family and friends, and support from other parents with similar parenting journeys via parent support groups.
A diagnosis doesn’t necessarily mean the journey will be any easier. However, it can help children and families move from significant struggle and distress to greater clarity, understanding, and hope when they are equipped with new skills and tools that support positive mental health for both children and parents and the ability for children to flourish despite living with mental illness or disability. And you don’t have to walk the journey alone. KIDTHINK is available to help.
Written by Kari Deschambault MSW, RSW
Mental Health Clinician
MORE COMMON THAN YOU THINK
- 1 in 7 children suffers from mental illness in Manitoba (Chartier et al., 2016).
- 70% of mental health problems have their onset in childhood or adolescence (Government of Canada, 2006).
There Is Hope The good news is that mental illness can be treated effectively. There are things that can be done to prevent mental illness and its impact and help improve the lives of children experiencing mental health concerns. Early intervention is best.
How KIDTHINK Can Help
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Chartier M, Brownell M, MacWilliam L, Valdivia J, Nie Y, et al. (2016). The mental health of Manitoba’s children. Winnipeg, MB. Manitoba Centre for Health Policy.
Government of Canada. (2006). The human face of mental health and mental illness in Canada. Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada. Retrieved from https://cpa.ca/docs/File/Practice/human_face_e.pdf