By Stephanie Thompson, Crosswalk.com
Upon finding out I was pregnant with my first child, I raced to the bookstore down the street. I wanted to be prepared for this long anticipated season of life, so I purchased a popular book an raising young children.
However, in the 20 plus years since I bought that book, I have found myself repeating “THAT was not in the book!”
Some of the situations that demand that mantra are those unexpected but somewhat normal moments which are common to many households. But then there are the bigger things… of which mental illness is one.
It weaves through my family’s story affecting my children and me. None of those of course entered into my mind when envisioning parenting.
Parenting children with mental health issues can be isolating and exhausting. Trying to listen to the many voices in the medical/psychological community regarding mental illness and treatment approaches can feel overwhelming.
In addition, the stigma can leave parents feeling judged and isolated by others. How do you find hope for walking forward? Here are 5 ways.
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1. Find a Support System
Parents of children with mental illness often find themselves living in an “under the radar” community. Stigma, privacy issues, and feeling misunderstood make it difficult to be transparent about our struggles publicly.
When a child struggles, the whole family is affected. Children have attained sobriety and then relapsed. Siblings have acted out their feelings of neglect. Young adults have made heartbreaking decisions that are no reflection on the parenting skills of those who raised them.
Suicide attempts are an everyday conversation.
We find hope through the affirmation and encouragement of a community that is familiar with our common experiences. There is opportunity to share questions about behavior, treatment, school accommodations, and other areas related to raising a child with mental illness.
Together we grieve, hold out hope, bare our souls, pray, and inform.
Where can you find these life-giving spaces? While in-person groups offer literal shoulders to lean on, they may not always be a possibility. Nami.org offers local in-person support groups and educational events as well as online opportunities to become informed. Type in your zip code to find local resources.
Churches also may offer support groups either sponsored by them or hosting meeting space for others.
In addition, search the internet for online groups. Find one that best fits your needs. Here are some suggestions:
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2. Identify Your Mat Carriers
Asking for help is hard. The confusion, despair, and exhaustion pressing into our bodies and souls can leave us feeling immobile. The bodies and souls of all family members feel afflicted. Where can we turn for help?
“One day, while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting nearby (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem); and the power of the Lord was with him to heal. Just then some men came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus.” Luke 5:15-26
Jesus actually commends the faith of the friends who brought the man to him for restoration. Who are your “mat carriers?” People want to help. Ironically, it doesn’t seem as hard to offer to be the carrier as it is to ask someone to be one for us. But think how blessed you feel when God uses you in that way. Sometimes people don’t know how to help, so we can ask and give them concrete ideas.
Sometimes it feels awkward to be on the receiving end of help. But God created us to be interdependent.
I remember moments when friends have put out a “shout out” for help because of various hardships. I saw the Holy Spirit at work. Community is a gift through which God “touches” us. Identify yours.
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3. Find Refuge in a Local Church
The church body should be the place where we find refuge and flourish as companions living in the Kingdom of God.
Unfortunately, the Church is still learning to recognize the validity of mental illness and the manifestation of shaming, judgment, and lack of support hurt those suffering.
In referencing specific congregations, author Amy Simpson writes, “In their theological framework, mental illness has no place among God’s people. Those who manifest symptoms are assumed to be demon-possessed, willfully attached to some egregious sin, or lacking the faith they need to claim God’s healing. When they don’t get better by simply praying or exercising more faith, they are considered at fault and not welcome within the fellowship.”
Finding a place within a local congregation can feel risky. We are placing all our family members in a vulnerable situation. One in which symptoms may present by a family member that can feel scary to others.
But entering those messy places with one another is what characterizes the love of God’s people.
The beauty of the Christian community is that we are made better by growing together. We gain a bigger picture of God’s character through our interactions with each other.
For example, one of my children placed the communion cups in the trays. Embrace the way God uses all of us to function as his body. We all benefit when we serve with the gifts and skills we have to offer.
“Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” 1 Thessalonians 5:11.
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4. Receive God’s Mercies
How many times do we wish for a do-over in life? Often in our attempts to grasp for control over situations, we respond in ways that hurt others or do not bring peace to our own minds, bodies and souls.
Parenting children with mental health issues can tempt us to react impulsively and in a “fight or flight” manner. But our sinful actions do not define our relationships. The Apostle Paul reminds us, “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).
Acknowledging the wrong and asking for forgiveness not only begins the process of healing the relationship but can become a teachable moment. Our kids are always watching us. They need a reminder that even parents aren’t perfect.
By observing how we respond to bad decisions and learn from them points them to God’s mercies. They can see our process of asking for forgiveness, but also forgiving ourselves.
Practise self-compassion. Too often we are kind to others, but cruel or dismissive of our own distress. It’s important to prioritize your own well-being and self-care.
If you’re experiencing stress, anxiety or depression, talk to and treat yourself like you would a friend. Many people are not used to treating themselves compassionately, but there are resources available to help you cultivate self-compassion.
"The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness." Lamentations 3:22-23
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5. Love Yourself, Too
When a child suffers, it affects the whole family. Marriages become strained. Sibling relationships may feel fractured. Everyone has their own way of processing their emotions. Parenting is challenging enough without an unexpected situation into the mix.
In order to best care for your kids and others, caring for self is vital. Loving your neighbor (family) as yourself means recognizing that your wholeness matters.
What does it look like to find opportunities for renewal when time, childcare, and finances appear as obstacles?
- Ask someone (perhaps a “carrier”) to care for your other kids or the one struggling so you get a break and your kids experience a change of scenery and recognize the importance of community.
- Identify older kids who may be a helpful “outside” presence to entertain your kids so you can spend some time reading, making phone calls, or do something relaxing.
- Splurge on a favorite treat when running errands.
- Spend time nurturing your relationship with God. It will sustain you.
Author Melanie Dale writes, “I know you’re out there. Keep up the incredible work. Take care of yourselves, moms. It’s a marathon with no finish line in sight. What our precious kids are dealing with is brutal, it’s painful, and it’s constant. They’re so important. And we’re important too, so we have to take care of ourselves. Find the underground club, laugh hysterically for no good reason, and love yourself. Love yourself even when you aren’t feeling it from anyone else.”
Remember that you are not alone. Lean into those who can hold you as you navigate parenting in this unexpected place.
And embrace Jesus’ offer: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
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