My child has a mental illness: What can a parent do?

I sat listening to my son try and describe his feelings of despair and anguish. While I’ve never been in his shoes or fully understand his struggles, I knew how he was feeling. I struggled with similar feelings of depression when I was his age. Unfortunately, this didn’t lessen his pain or mine as I watched his struggle.

As a mental health therapist, I know how to foster healing. I have knowledge and skills that have helped many young men, young women, adults, and children fight battles and come out successful. But no skills or good intentions will heal my son. It is a battle he has to fight, certainly not alone, but it is his battle. So, what can I do? What can any of us parents do to help our children who are struggling with mental illness?

  1. Build strong connections. Relationships are so important to children and adults, for that matter. Too much isolation fosters depression. Play is one of the best ways to build good relationships. this. It isn’t easy to encourage a depressed or anxious child to have fun with you but providing the opportunities to bond together with play is good medicine.

  2. Listen! Sometimes we, as parents, want to jump in and fix everything. However, a lot of these kids just want to know they are important enough for an adult to hear them. You can show you are listening through your body language. Are you looking at them. Is your body open and approachable? Change your body language and see what happens. You can show you are listening by what you say. Using positive and encouraging words rather than critical and hostile language fosters communication; so, does open-ended questions (questions that don’t have a yes or no answer). The idea is to help your child feel accepted.

  3. Establish an environment that is shame free. Brene Brown said, “shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”  Shame is negative and degrading. It never works in our favor or those around us. Your child is suffering from a complex condition with many contributing factors. Certainly, this does not mean you don’t have rules and expectations. It means you don’t indignify your child because he doesn’t meet societies standards of perfection.

  4. Get professional help. Whether you see a counselor for you or for your child the skills you learn will be invaluable. A good mental health professional will help your family as part of a team effort.

  5. Take care of yourself. This cannot be overstated enough. If you don’t practice good self-care you will not be able to give your whole self to your struggling child. As you practice good self-care you will also model self-love to your child. Some ways to do this are to take breaks when needed, exercise and eat healthy, short meditations, and grounding activities.

  6. Be Informed. Being your child’s best advocate needs to include appropriate information on what your child’s mental health condition is and what the best treatment for his condition is. Ask your medical provider, look up legitimate websites, and talk to people that are further down the road with more experience to help you. Some helpful webistes:,,

  7. Surround yourself with supportive people (ignore the critics). There are a lot of opinions about mental illness. Most of those opinionated people do not have the education or the experience to give you medical advice. However, a lot of others want to be supportive and helpful when you and your child are struggling. “Look for the helpers, “as Mr. Rogers would say. Your family needs support. There is no reason to walk this journey on your own. Support from family, friends, church members, and community helpers is available. Seek those people who have positive qualities, who will listen, and struggle with you.

I cannot promise that your family’s journey will end the way you want it to. It would be nice to have a math formula that fixes these types of situations. Sometimes the best we can do, as parents, is just to keep going. Each day will bring new complications as we fight mental illness together. There is no doubt this is a challenging time to be a parent. However, each day is one step closer to new hope and an opportunity to be courageous in spite of the difficulty.