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.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
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Tabita, I read your book, mostly because I survived an ED, too. I voluntarily took myself to therapy when I was living away from home at age 23. The year was 1981. So I was not a child then. Like Rebeka, I tried to tell them, but my ED was ignored. My only choice at that point, to get “seen” at all, was to tell these doctors I had other problems since they were ignoring the ones I had. Sadly, they finally accepted me. The result was 34 years of false diagnoses, and they continued to ignore my ED the entire time. The solution was to get away entirely, ditch my multiple drugs and diagnoses, and solve the ED on my own, finally, as a senior.
I love your book, especially the part where you describe Rebekah taking on the various diagnoses AFTER she is assigned them. Or, at times, she finds diagnoses for herself, then, gets these characteristics. I saw this so much in nutshouses over the years. A person is called bipolar, then, becomes bipolar. A person is called schiz, then, becomes that. Or…sometimes, rejects the diagnosis, but this didn’t happen much, and it was called noncompliance and frowned upon. Peer pressure kept us compliant.
In extreme cases, a therapist can produce a diagnosis in a person. I call this diagnosis abuse. I have seen patients jerked around by therapists who change the diagnosis this way. I love the way you illustrate this in the beginning chapters of your book, where you show how Rebekah changes as she takes on different roles, almost as if she were taking on acting roles.
This was so much like what the mental hospital was like. I wish so much that people understood this.
Hi Julie, thanks for your comment. Yes, I didn’t have space to get into that in this article, but it was interesting (and scary!) to witness how influential a diagnosis, or even the hint of a diagnosis, can be on a person’s behavior and identity. This is one of the many reasons, the first words out of my mouth to any parent seeking my counsel is what I described above: “Make sure she knows there is nothing *wrong* with her.” I think this singular perspective can change the trajectory of a young person’s experience. Peace to you.
Tabita when I was a kid my parents, like just about all parents then, had their copy of Dr. Spock they kept in the kitchen on an upper shelf just high enough so I had to stand on a chair to reach up and grab it and take it down so I could have a peek. One day, I did. I leafed through it, trying to find out their “secrets.” I wanted to know EVERYTHING. I figured that and the Torah held those secrets adults had that they didn’t want children to know. Very little of Dr. Spock has anything about so-called childhood disorders, interestingly. Much is on how children lose their baby teeth, learn how to use toilets, and learn to use something besides a breast. Likewise, when I was a kid growing up in the 1960’s we didn’t even think of childhood disorders. We wanted our baseball team to win, I remember that. They lost.
Tabita, your five points are definitely the essential five for family members to absorb. We often focus too much on achieving educational milestones and not enough on taking the time to learn how to be resilient.
You’re so right. It’s encouraging to see more schools embrace social and emotional learning curricula, but we have a long way to go to change perceptions about what kids really need.
“……….a cocktail of antidepressants, antipsychotics, and benzodiazepines at age 13…….”
How common is this?
At this point I ask why not add a horse tranquiliser?
These people, these so called doctors, are but legalised drug pushers.
Yes, no wonder Rebecka didn’t feel herself—and that we didn’t recognize her!
I’m not sure how common it is for someone so young to be on multiple psychotropics, but it certainly happens—even in much younger children. Here is a study from 2010 on the matter: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2952543/
The conclusion: “Although little is known about the safety and efficacy of regimens that involve concomitant use of two or more psychotropic agents for children and adolescents, multi-class psychotropic pharmacy is becoming increasingly common in outpatient practice.”
This isn’t medcine, this is mass poisoning of children and young people.
Exactly. Here in the United States it’s not uncommon to see kids on a so-called “antidepressant”, an “antipsychotic”. and a benzo and all at the same time. You are right when you state that this isn’t medicine but mass poisoning of children.
I think if parents listen, respectfully, to their child’s feelings, not rushing to judgment, or giving advice, but just listening, so their child feels known as they really are, it helps a lot.
Just keep parents away from NAMI and all the other pharma fronts.
My mother was turned on to all the industry propaganda and ‘support’ by her friend who’s son was also messed up by the doctors and pills at the same time I was. That just made it worse after the ‘fun’ part was over, the Benzos and ADHD drugs, then I am labeled bipolar and if I would just take the medication…
Bi Polar… Um no, its called acute and post accute withdrawal dumbasses from the crap you people gave me after I complained of insomnia “insomnia is a symptom of depression” Start SSRIs then Xanax…. Clonopin and Remeron …. And looks like your ADHD, try this, how do those amphetamines make you feel ? Kind of nice and wow they give THIS to kids ? Can’t be that unhealthy if they give it to children, won’t hurt me.
Then when this chemical ‘fun’ turns to a nightmare here comes the bipolar label and the Zyprexa… Then try and get off that poison and get sick its “the illness coming back” then I am the bad guy for refusing to take lithium… Long story, to long for a comment post but I crawled out of the pill nightmare after finding out the truth about bio psychiatry (its all lies) and with a good dose of I will show them.
Keep parents away from those pharmaceutical company store fronts like NAMI, parents are no match the corporate psychopaths in the marketing dept. Your son is sick… All good parents want medicine for there ‘sick’ children… The medicine will “fix everything” just find the right ones, don’t give up. If your kids complain of feeling like a zombie that’s just cause they “lack insight”… they have a new label or excuse for everything in advance. You don’t make billions without a plan.
Tabita, I think also parents should know about these “rehabs” where kids are being sent to where they are getting this therapy from abusive therapists. Sadly, these therapists have an agenda. The going stereotype is that anyone who goes to therapy must have “bad parents.” I know for one thing i did not. Many who go to therapy did not have bad parents, but these therapists drill it into young people’s heads that they were abused as children, inducing either entirely false memories, or the vague notion that somehow they must have been abused.
I did not get a specific false memory of childhood abuse by my parents, but for decades I truly felt like the “oddball” in therapy since I had not been child abused and most other patients were victims of childhood parental abuse. Many of the therapists were pushy, constantly saying, “There must have been something,” or pushing me to admit to abuse that never happened. The pressure is high in these centers, especially at the residential, intensive, and day treatment levels. People need to be warned of this, since the pressure on young and vulnerable patients can literally break families apart.
I did not have abusive parents, period. I was abused by a childhood friend in high school. These idiot therapists, many of whom (I later found out) were only playing out their own fantasies and abuse trauma themselves, refused to listen to me all those years. Parents should be warned that these abusive therapists are out there. Families can be destroyed by therapy. I went to therapy at age 23 and i’m 59 now. My family was fine before, not divorced, certainly. Now, the ones still alive barely speaking to me, and I have relatives I have never met. This is so heartbreaking. It’s because of therapy, and the one thing I want is my family back.
Hi Julie, good reminder that we can’t assume that everybody has the same experiences. In fact, they’re all different! That’s what makes life so challenging—and so interesting. I’m so sad to hear about how misguided therapy alienated you from your family members. I hope you’re able to get your family back. Hang in there!
“Make sure,” I tell them, “that your child knows there is nothing wrong with them.” Love this!
If our wounds are visible like a cut or a broken leg we just give it time and what we see is part of the expectation that we can heal. If we wound the spirit we can’t see what is wrong so we run seeking the unknown. It might take months or years but healing the spirit can happen.
Best summed up in the song “Jessie J – Who You Are” with “it’s ok not to be ok”
Tabita, I love your advice to parents. Especially for parents and the young person to know they are not broken or defective. I agree that what are described as symptoms are communications about a young person’s world. This description of the challenge as an issue between the young person and their environment gives hope for healing. Pronouncements of defective brains (for which there is no evidence ) rob the person and their family of hope.
I gave a talk about my own recovery of my life in Oregon. A 13 year old boy attended with his mother. I asked his mother at lunch if her son benefitted from my talk. She said I may have saved his life. She said that when he was 10 he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was told it was a permenant condition for which he would need a lifetime of services. This pronouncement caused him to lose hope and he has been suicidal ever since. She said,”Today was the first time he had heard that there was hope that he could have a full life and it was the first day he has not felt suicidal!”
Hi Daniel, thanks for sharing that powerful, beautiful story. Oh, how I wish every young person could hear and receive that message. Let’s keep spreading it!