This is the continuing series of columns from State Representative Liz Linehan (D-103) addressing the issue of mental health among children and teens.
This is the fourth installment in my series on Children’s Mental Health, in partnership with The Herald.
In the previous weeks, we looked at the warning signs of depression and anxiety in children and adolescents, provided information on calling 2-1-1 in a crisis, and listed local resources for ongoing care. Last week, we discussed intentional non-suicidal self-harm, colloquially known as “cutting.” These are all heavy, concerning subjects for any family, so this week we will examine outside supports, not only for your child, but for you and the rest of your family as well.
Parenting, even on the best of days, can be difficult. Parenting a child with a mental health or behavioral issue can be overwhelming. On top of that, you’re expected to manage your job, your spouse, and the rest of your family. Perhaps you’re a single parent and you’re expected to do all that without the benefit of help inside the home on a daily basis. All these things can make parenting a child with mental health concerns, especially those that can be life-threatening, seem downright impossible. I assure you, it is not impossible, but it does take a village.
If you’re new to this, I highly suggest taking some time to learn about how to support your child, your family, and yourself through a virtual meeting series developed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) called “NAMI Basics.” This is a free six-week program that “allows families to connect with one another while learning about mental illness, its impact on children and adolescents, strategies to deal with schools and providers, and tools to empower parents and caregivers to overcome new challenges.” If a six-week commitment seems overwhelming in and of itself, each video is now available on demand 24/7 for you to watch on your own schedule.
The Connecticut chapter of NAMI is also offering Family-to-Family sessions, a zoom meet up for adult parents and caregivers, taught by NAMI-trained family members who have gone through exactly what you’re going through now. Parents walk away not only learning strategies, but also knowing they’re not alone. Pre-registration is required, and the next group begins on Jan. 13, with a second group beginning on Jan. 25, and each lasting into March. To register for these free sessions, visit namict.org and navigate to Education in the Find Help drop-down menu, and click on Family to Family.
While you have hopefully found a therapist for your child with the help of our previous articles, the challenges of one child and how we react to them as parents most often affects the entire family. Therefore, a Family and Marriage Therapist may be ideal. I spoke to Amanda Kedzior, LMFT and principal therapist at Connecticut Counseling Center in Cheshire, to discuss the benefits of family counseling. She explained that teaching a child to utilize the skills learned in treatment without the rest of their family doing their own mental and emotional homework puts too much pressure on the child and can ultimately set them up for failure. By watching the family’s patterns of interactions and working with as many family members as possible, a therapist can bring about more long-lasting change than individual counseling. “Parents can learn how to support their children in family therapy,” Kedzior says. “They learn how they participate in keeping a pattern which no longer serves the family, and they’ll learn how to move forward to create a healing environment for themselves and their children.” Think of it this way: if your child is struggling in school, and then comes home to do their homework and you don’t have the tools to reinforce what they’re learning in school, your child continues to fall further behind. The same idea applies here and the results can be a more harmonious home where everyone feels heard, understood, and supported. It takes work, yes, but ultimately it’s worth it.
Sometimes, however, the need for more intensive therapy becomes apparent. If your child is returning from short- or long-term hospitalization, or is at risk for requiring hospitalization due to psychiatric, emotional, or behavioral difficulties, the state offers home-based family treatment programs, including Functional Family Therapy, and Intensive Therapy known as IICAPS. If your child has a co-occuring substance abuse problem, Multidimensional Family Therapy may be recommended. Wheeler Clinic in Plainville, Wellmore in Waterbury, and the Yale Child Study Center in New Haven are some of the providers who may refer you to these programs. Please know that participation in state programs is not a referral to the child welfare side of the Department of Children and Families, and you are not giving up any parental rights by participating in these programs. These are masters-level clinicians coming to your home to provide ongoing intensive treatment for you, your child, and all the members of your family when you need it most.
We must also note the importance of self-care as a parent to a child with a mental illness. I implore you to practice kindness toward yourself. Helping your family through a mental health crisis takes time, patience, and understanding, but you must also practice those principles internally, and apply them to who you are as a parent. There will be times you make a decision which didn’t turn out the way you hoped. There may be times when you tried to stay calm, but you didn’t make it. There will be times when everything hits all at once, and you’re overwhelmed and at your wits end. It’s OK to not have it together all the time. You’re not going to be perfect, and just as you are trying to teach your child the power of getting up and trying again, you can model that behavior by granting yourself some grace.
I’ll say it again: parenting is difficult. Parenting a child with mental illness can be overwhelming. By giving yourself a break once in a while, and by demonstrating that lack of perfection doesn’t equal failure, you’re not only allowing yourself some room to regroup, you’re modeling the very essence of resilience, which is a necessary skill for all our children.
Something I read today seems appropriate to share with you in this moment: “You have been assigned this mountain to show others it can be moved.” I promise, it can be done.