In the couple of years since my daughter Rebecka and I published our book, Her Lost Year, I have received many emails, Facebook messages and phone calls from despairing parents. Often, they are in a similar situation to the one we describe in the book. A bright young teen daughter is experiencing mental distress. She is cutting and often restricting her food intake, expresses feelings of anxiety and depression, and has possibly already been diagnosed and medicated. The parent contacting me wants to know, how did you get through it? What do you suggest? What else can we try?
The good news is that there are more resources available for parents and families today than when we were going through a year of psychiatric treatments some years ago. One of these resources, launched recently by Mad in America, is Parent Resources, curated by Eric Maisel. To add to these resources, I will share some of my common responses to parents.
Before I go further I will tell you, like I tell every parent who contacts me, that I am not a mental health professional. I am communicating from my experience as a parent of one specific child, and I recognize that every child—and every situation—is different. Parents should be curious, skeptical, and as informed as they can be. My insights should be one input of many.
1. Your Child Is Not Broken
If I can share only one sentiment with a parent, it is this. “Make sure,” I tell them, “that your child knows there is nothing wrong with them.”
Almost as soon as our family entered the mental health system, Rebecka started to do research to figure out what was wrong with her. She bought a psychology book and studied up on bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and personality disorders. If she was seeing doctors and therapists, surely there was something wrong. And she was determined to figure out what it was!
Our whole family bought into the prevalent narrative that depression, anxiety, and other “mental disorders” were caused by a broken brain—a chemical imbalance. Thinking of our daughter’s experiences as disordered and requiring medical attention led us down a path, not toward relief, but toward medication-induced psychosis, suicidality, and unhope.
After years of research, conversations and writing on this topic, I believe children’s “disordered” behaviors and expressions of sadness, anxiety, fear, worry, and despair are sophisticated communications of the most visceral kind. Our children are telling us, in not so many words, that something is amiss—in their immediate environment and in the world at large. We need to listen and act. This is the path to relief and resolution—for all involved.
2. School Is Secondary
Parents are often concerned with their child’s progress in school. “She’s missed so much school,” they say. To which I reply, “Don’t worry about school right now.”
Education is an important force in our society. Once a child begins high school, grades matter—and many students start building their resumes by getting involved in as many activities as possible. Anything to get accepted to the perfect college. Anything for perceived success. So it is no surprise that parents are distressed about the fact that grades are slipping and engagement has dropped to nothing.
Your child’s well-being is more important than school, I remind parents. Indeed, a toxic school environment may very well contribute to a child’s distress. Traditional, standardized, competition-based education is not for everyone. College is not for everyone. Your child is not a failure if they decide to attend a vocational program at a community college. In fact, they may have a better life than many people who follow a path dictated by cultural norms and family expectations.
The more likely “worst-case scenario” is that your child must repeat a grade because she missed so much instruction. And when you think about it, there are many worse things in the world. Plus, your child will have gained insight into herself and others that will make her a more compassionate human being and possibly a more dedicated student.
3. You Know Your Child Best
As a parent who has been with your child almost daily since birth or adoption, you know your child best. Don’t let anybody make you think otherwise.
When Rebecka was given a cocktail of antidepressants, antipsychotics, and benzodiazepines at age 13, and all we could see was deterioration of her personality, her wit, and her ability to function in the real world, our guts told us something was wrong. Yet my husband and I wanted to trust the professionals.
When we started to voice our concerns, these professionals told us that it gets worse before it gets better. “But,” we tried to say, “she was functioning fine before she started the medication.” This conversation went nowhere. They were trained to treat the symptoms in front of them, and this training drained all the curiosity out of them about who this young person was before she was a psychiatric patient.
For many months, the system made us doubt who our daughter really was. But by the end of the year, our doubts had shifted to the system itself—the system responsible for inducing the severe symptoms in the first place. Rebecka could thrive only when we trusted that we knew our daughter best and stood up against the system.
I never judge a parent who has made the very difficult decision to administer psychotropics to their child. How could I? Rather, I encourage parents to be informed—as informed as one can be when studies are rigged and for-profit interests obfuscate negative results. Study the known side effects. Monitor your child closely. And ask yourself constantly, is my child (and our family) doing better or worse than before that first prescription? Because nobody will do this for you.
4. Focus on Resilience
Resilience has become quite the buzzword, for good reasons. This innate ability to “bounce back” serves as a protective factor against mental distress. And the good news is that resilience skills can be learned.
Well-being is a complicated matter. Many different factors contribute to an individual’s capacity to experience this coveted state. Some of these factors we can’t control as individuals—such as climate change, structural racism and xenophobia, income inequality, discrimination, poverty, and our genocidal history… These are issues we must deal with as a society to give future generations a shot at well-being and sustained life. Working for social justice should be at the core of any effort to support increased well-being. We cannot lose sight of this.
That said, there are many thing we can do to support individual children’s resilience. Here are a few suggestions:
- Take care of basic needs: Make sure your child is active and has plenty of unstructured outdoor playtime. Feed them real food that meets their individual needs. (I often recommend Cure Your Child with Food by Kelly Dorfman.) Ensure they’re getting enough sleep and rest. Spend time in nature. These are important aspects of self-care.
- Teach children to self-soothe: It’s never too early to teach children how to self-soothe and self-regulate. This can be done through visualization, listening to calming sounds, aromatherapy, practicing yoga, walking in the woods, mindful breathing, etc. An older child might benefit from a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) group for teens.
- Validate all emotions: I learned this strategy when I was poring over books about how to “help your teenage beat an eating disorder.” Validation is simply acknowledging your child’s emotion without judgment. Give your child space to sit with the emotion for a while, rather than treating the emotion as “bad.” This teaches them that all emotions are valid and normal. (My favorite book on this topic is Brave Parenting by Krissy Pozatek.)
- Find your purpose: One of the breakthroughs we had with our daughter was when we started to talk about her purpose. She felt that she didn’t have one—so what’s the point of being alive? Religion and spirituality are common sources of purpose—of feeling connected to something bigger. Social justice work and other charitable activities can also serve this role. Talk to your child about this and support them in this search.
5. There is Hope
I described the parents who contact me as despairing—showing the loss of all hope. This was perhaps an overly dramatic way to describe these parents, because they are still searching for relief for their child. And the best thing I can do for them is to assure them there is hope.
There were moments during Rebecka’s lost year when we lost hope. Indeed, the mainstream narrative about “mental illness” as a chronic disease—whether caused by genes or trauma or some combination thereof—leaves little room for hope.
When we asked Rebecka’s (last) psychiatrist about whether she would ever be able to stop taking psychotropics, he shook his head morosely and said, “I don’t know.” There was not one ounce of optimism to be found about our child’s outlook. No exit strategy. No hope.
Hope came when we made the brave decision to ask a psychiatrist at an in-patient unit to discontinue all psychotropics, which he did without question. Hope grew when, within days, Rebecka’s psychotic symptoms and suicidal ideation disappeared. Hope was cemented when a psychologist at the Mayo Clinic eating disorder program confirmed what we had known all along—that Rebecka was not a “psych patient.”
Today, Rebecka is a sophomore in college working for social justice and promoting interfaith dialogue. She has purpose. We have hope. I offer this hope freely to parents in the throes of navigating a broken mental health care system, worrying that their child is lost, but still searching for relief. You are not alone.