Things Not to Say to a Parent of a Child with Mental Illness
As a parent who survived my son’s high-school years, while balancing care for his mental illness, I wanted to share some especially damaging comments that I heard from other parents, family members and school staff.
If you hear any of these, I hope you know that your willingness to stand up for your child matters. My son told me that without his father and I as parents, he would not have survived. He depended on our support for not only getting through high school, but his actual survival.
Here’s just a sample of comments others said to us through these years:
“He is old enough to take care of this himself.”
Yes, if he were not facing a disability, he would have an easier time with responsibilities, such as remembering things from home and keeping track of dates. In high school, students are expected to juggle many teachers and classes, and for a child with mental illness, some things might fall through the cracks. To me, it was important to celebrate what he was managing, and I wished others would have seen it that way, too. It was challenging to be judged for my willingness to help my child, whether dropping off lunch or an assignment.
“He just needs to focus.”
Despite documentation indicating that focus was a major challenge, using the word “just” is demeaning. We heard this from the majority of his teachers, and always in front of him. Imagine if the teacher said to someone with a cane, “You just need to walk faster.” This is an extremely discouraging comment compared to “How might we adjust the assignment to make this more manageable?”
“He just needs to get motivated. Doesn’t he want to graduate?”
Somehow, despite depression in adults receiving more awareness, it is assumed that teenagers that are sleeping in or not doing their homework must be either lazy or rebellious. Some days, getting through an entire day of school was the maximum that he could do. And the expectation for him to also do hours of homework was not always reasonable.
I was told he could not take fewer classes in order to keep moving ahead. His only choices were coming to school and then doing hours of homework, withdrawing from all his classes or doing school online. He didn’t want to withdraw from all his classes, he wanted to graduate. And online school is a terrible option for those with depression that need some social engagement each day to help avoid further withdrawal. Schools should offer accommodations for all kids with disabilities, including mental illness.
“Well, if that is how you want to raise him...”
Insisting that symptoms of depression are valid and require adjustment of responsibilities at home and school does not mean pampering or encouraging a lack of responsibility. It means temporary adjustment as healing occurs, after which more responsibilities can be reintroduced. Once he can remember to shower, eat regularly and take his medication, then it may make sense to expect that he does chores around the house, for example. Once again, this type of judgment would not be placed on a child with cancer or another diagnosis.
I never stayed silent when I heard any of these comments. We must push back and speak up for our kids when they cannot yet advocate for themselves. Eventually, my son graduated through an alternative program. I encourage all parents of high schoolers with mental illness to not give up! Demand accommodation. Your child will thank you someday.
Karen M. Travis, Ph.D., is an economist who lives in Gig Harbor, Washington with her husband, son, dog and two cats. Karen enjoys skiing and exploring the Midwest while visiting her adult daughter. She hopes to encourage everyone journeying through mental illness and parenting.
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