When a child is diagnosed with mental illness, it can overwhelm the family. On the one hand, many parents feel that they finally have answers for behaviors that are confusing and often scary. On the other hand, finding the best treatment, dealing with insurance, and understanding the details of the diagnosis and how to best support the child in the home is time-consuming and each piece a difficult task. Caring for a child with mental illness on a day-to-day basis while balancing the needs of other children, work, and the various needs of the family leave little, if any, time for self-care. In short, it’s exhausting.

While many mental health practitioners recommend building support networks so that parents have friends, family, or other parents coping with similar issues as resources to connect with and lean on as part of the treatment process, it can be very difficult for parents to share this information with other parents.

Parents of children with mental illness can feel isolated, as it’s often a struggle to find other parents or friends who truly understand what they’re going through. Social support for parents plays a crucial role in the treatment process, however, because parents need people to empathize with them and show compassion during this difficult time.

In an effort to make a meaningful change and create a community of understanding around the mental health of children, it helps to explore some of the reasons parents don’t speak out and seek support from family and friends.

The Stigma is Real

The stigma associated with mental health disorders and one of the biggest barriers to both seeking treatment and discussing mental illness with others. The stigma often manifests as social distancing, whereby people struggling with mental illness are often isolated from others.

Negative stereotypes about people with mental illness often involve the perception that people with mental illness are dangerous. This particular stereotype is fueled by stories of school shooters and other violent predators who are often referred to as “mentally ill” without proper context.

Parents sometimes keep quiet about a child’s diagnosis to avoid having their child viewed through this negative lens by other kids, other parents, and even school staff.

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Educating Others Feels Overwhelming

Parents of children with mental illness spend a significant amount of time immersed in researching the specific diagnosis, available treatment options, and changes they can make within their own homes to help their children manage their symptoms. Chances are they’ve met with or called more than one mental health practitioner and are working with the school to put accommodations in the classroom in place for the child. It’s a lot of work. Parents quickly become “experts” on their own kids. There’s no downtime when children struggle with their mental health.

The thought of educating others about the diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis of the child can feel overwhelming. In an effort to understand what the parent is going through, loved ones might ask a lot of questions or do their own “research” into the matter and share their opinions on treatment. This can quickly become an added layer of stress to manage.

They Fear Judgment

People are quick to place blame when it comes to child mental illness. Instead of listening and learning, people have a tendency to evaluate what they know about the parents, the child’s living situation, or other personal factors. This increases the social distancing parents experience when they do talk openly about their child’s mental illness.

It’s Difficult to Build Trust

Given the stigma associated with mental illness and the subsequent fear of judgment, it can be hard to establish trust when looking for social support. Will rumors spread? Will parents judge my child every time he makes an error? Will other parents talk behind our backs and distance their child from ours?

Parents of children with mental illness need friendship and support. It’s natural to feel unsure of what to say or how to respond if a friend confides in you, but listening is always the best first step. Take the time to listen and convey empathy. There is no perfect response, but a show of support and offer to help in any way possible shows your friend that you are there and you can be trusted.

Last Updated: May 21, 2018