6 ways to love a family dealing with children’s mental health issues

Two of our children see mental health professionals regularly for therapy. I expect more will in the future. And many other kids I love are also being treated, some outpatient like mine and others in inpatient settings.

Usually we parents don’t write posts like these. Sometimes our silence comes from a desire to protect our children’s stories (and I’m not sharing many details for that reason). Often, though, our own shame is driving. And? Sometimes well-meaning friends reinforce that with judgment.

So how can you love families dealing with their children’s mental health issues?

1. Recognize this as a HEALTH issue.

Mental illness is real. Brain scans show differences neurologically between those with and without diagnoses like ADHD, childhood trauma, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, to name a few. Research backs therapeutic and pharmaceutical supports as effective treatment options. This isn’t about emotions. This is about a physical injury or difference, except the brain is affected instead of the lungs or kidneys. How would you reply if I shared a diagnosis of diabetes or cancer? Push through your discomfort with mental illness, and respond to us in that spirit.

2. Hold back on your views about psychiatric meds.

The internet gives us all plenty of opportunity to voice our opinions. I know you have thoughts. I do too. I also know I’ve been guilty of spewing my thoughts without considering who might be reading them. You probably have too.

But when you share articles that call our kids’ diagnoses bogus or rant about how overmedicated youth are nowadays or argue that children need more recess not therapy, we hear you. We see your words. And they sting. Because even if there’s a grain of validity there, your words feel like personal judgment. We may mentally cross your name off our list of safe people. If you’re a ministry leader or pastor, we might also cross church off our list of safe places.

3. Remind us that we’re good parents.

Good parents seek help for their kids when it’s needed. That’s what we’re doing. One former confidant wounded me in a heated moment, snapping that I had no right to offer guidance about motherhood since I have two kids in therapy. Ouch. I’m secure in our course of care for our kids, and that still felt like a gut punch. So, please, affirm our parenting. We need your kindness to drown out the voices questioning us. (And? Sometimes our own inner voice can be our harshest critic, even if no one else is passing judgment.)

4. Ask about specific practical needs we might have. 

When parents are overwhelmed and feeling like they’re failing at the whole “train up your child in the way he should go” thing, we can’t usually handle open-ended questions. “What can I do to help?” Yeah, we’ve got nothing.

Here are some better questions: Can I bring you dinner? Could I pick up a load of laundry and return it washed and folded tomorrow? Can I pick up one of your other children for a playdate? 

Or just offer help directly: I hear that inpatient care isn’t always covered by insurance; here’s some money we’d like to offer as a gift. (This could be a personal donation or an extension of your church’s benevolence program for helping families in need.) Here’s Starbucks. I’m ordering pizza for dinner for y’all one night this week, so let me know the night and your favorite toppings. 

5. Believe us.

Most of the world sees our kids at their best. Usually, we help with that image. Rather than dishonoring our kids by sharing stories of them at their worst, we offer filtered stories and edited pictures. We might use #keepingitreal but few of us post our realest real, for good reason.

(Side note to other parents: Please, if you are sharing your kids’ worst moments online, stop. Consider the biblical concept of doing to others as you’d have them do unto you. I wouldn’t want my biggest meltdowns broadcast on social media, would you? Pause before posting. Then if you need to share, go ahead and do so privately with a trusted friend. Public posts – or even “friends only” ones – don’t preserve your child’s dignity.)

Unless we have come to you for a professional opinion, don’t try to offer a diagnosis or discredit one we already have. Believe us. Believe that we know our kids better than you do. Believe that what we’re saying is true and real. Believe that love and belonging are better gifts to offer than skepticism or critiques.

6. Remember us. 

If we’ve told you that we’re seeking help for our child’s mental health, we’re saying we trust you. You’re our people. So, please, remember us. Keep texting and showing up and caring and offering your presence and holding space for us, even if we suck at reciprocating friendship right now.

After all, God created our bodies and our minds. Mental health issues don’t catch him by surprise. As his people, let’s not act surprised when they show up in our lives or churches either.

Have you walked this path? If so, we’d love it if you could leave a comment with what helped or didn’t help you from friends or your church. We can all learn from each other here.

Shannon Dingle serves as a Key Ministry church consultant. Shannon, her husband Lee and their six children live in Raleigh, NC.

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Key Ministry encourages our readers to check out the resources we've developed to help pastors, church leaders, volunteers and families to better understand the nature of trauma in children and teens, Jolene Philo's series on PTSD in children, and series on other mental health-related topics, including series on the impact of ADHDanxiety and Asperger's Disorder on spiritual development in kids, depression in children and teenspediatric bipolar disorder, and ten strategies for promoting mental health inclusion at church.