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How To Practice Self-Care When Your Child Is Living With Mental Illness

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If you want to put your best foot forward in caring for your family, it’s essential to care for yourself, too. For families with a child living with mental illness, it can be easy to let the child’s needs consume them, resulting in self-neglect along the way. However, it is possible for parents to find balance in taking care of themselves — while navigating the challenges of supporting a child living with mental illness or other major stressors.

Mental illness in children

Mental illness in children is more prevalent than many realize. According to a 2011–2012 survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one of seven 2–8-year-olds in the U.S. at that time had been diagnosed with some type of mental behavioral or developmental disorder.

In a separate CDC report, children aged 3–17 years were identified as having diagnoses that included attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (6.8 percent); behavioral or conduct problems (3.5 percent); anxiety (3.0 percent); depression (2.1 percent); and autism spectrum disorder (1.1 percent).

In the same report, adolescents aged 12–17 years were identified as having diagnoses that included illicit drug use disorder in the past year (4.7 percent); alcohol use disorder in the past year (4.2 percent); and cigarette dependence in the past month (2.8 percent). Even more alarming, for this age group, suicide was the second leading cause of death in 2010.

The impact on families

For families dealing with such challenges in a child, the impact can be immense. As the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) notes, having a child with mental illness can affect a parent’s personal health — especially if parents struggle with mental illness, too — and create a ripple effect on family dynamics as a whole.

Siblings may resent having so much attention focused on the child with intense needs; spouses and partners may not agree on issues like discipline and support; and family members may not want to help — some even causing more harm than good when they do.

Taking care of you

You’re probably familiar with the airline mantra of putting your own oxygen mask on before your child’s. That’s not about selfishness — rather, you must breathe if you expect to help your child do the same. It’s a universal concept for caregivers, and using resources like the Mindfulness Toolkit from the online Master of Social W ork program at the University of Southern California and some great advice from NAMI can help you do it:

  • Understand your stressors and how they affect you — so you can be prepared to either avoid or better cope with them when they occur.

  • Protect your physical health — with habits like daily exercise, eating well, sleeping enough, avoiding substances and practicing relaxation techniques.

  • Recharge yourself — by moving out of “caregiver mode” periodically to enjoy the other people and things that you love.

  • Support your own mental health — by avoiding guilt, noticing the positive and gathering strength from others.

Although parenting a child living with mental illness can be a daunting task, you’ll be better prepared to cope with the challenge if you commit to caring for yourself, too.

Writer Tagline: Colleen O'Day is a digital PR manager and supports community outreach for 2U Inc.'s social work, mental health and speech pathology programs. Find her on Twitter @ColleenMODay.

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