Marisa Howard-Karp, MS
May 3, 2023

Support for parents of a child with mental illness: 3 ways to be a great friend

When kids struggle, their parents do too. Support for parents of a child with mental illness matters. Here are 3 ways to be a great friend.

You probably know someone with mental illness. Maybe you struggle with it yourself. Many of us do. But it’s so hard to talk about. And when children struggle, their parents do too. So in honor of Mental Health Month in May, we want to talk about supporting parents of a child with mental illness.

When we talk about mental illness, we often think about issues like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. But mental illness also includes anxiety disorders, depression, and even ADHD. Mental illness is a medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others, and daily functioning.

So much of our confusion and fear and difficulty in talking about mental illness comes from the idea that something is “wrong” with people who are experiencing it, or that you can “power through” depression or “just get over” anxiety if you want to. Sometimes we see people struggling but we think about these struggles as mental health “issues” and assume everyone has them. 

But all of this is a myth. Mental illness is as real as asthma or cerebral palsy. We can’t make it go away by powering through or refusing to talk about it.

Mental illness in kids is way more common than you might realize.

1 in 5 teenagers lives with a mental health condition. Younger children experience them less often but also live with mental illness. The mental illnesses most commonly diagnosed in kids include depression, anxiety, ADHD, and eating disorders. 

Mental illness is a disability and is much more common for children with other disabilities than for typical children. Here are some of the ways it shows up in children:

  • Mateo has sensory processing disorder and can get overwhelmed by the lights and noise in his classroom. It makes him feel extremely anxious and he worries about new situations and resists even small changes in his routine. This level of anxiety, which is disrupting his daily functioning, is a form of mental illness. His parents have started to feel like every day is a fight. 

  • Amelia has been struggling with reading. She is falling behind and tells her mom she’s not as smart as the other kids. She is starting to show signs of depression, including dropping out of basketball, which she loves. In the mornings she complains that she doesn’t feel well and tries to stay home from school.

  • Logan has ADHD and is constantly in motion. His teachers give him a lot of negative feedback about not being able to stay still and disrupting the classroom. He feels like he can’t do anything right and is starting to tell adults that he is “just a bad kid.” His behavior is becoming even more challenging for the adults around him.

  • Gianna has Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD), which is a mental illness. She often explodes when asked to finish her homework or clean her room. Her parents are fed up with her behavior and punish her, not realizing that she doesn’t yet have the skills to manage her emotions. Some of her friends have stopped wanting to hang out with her because of her explosions.

What is the best way to help families who have a child with a mental illness?

Mental illness, like any disability, impacts the whole family. When a child is struggling, parents carry a big load. We love our children SO MUCH. We may be frustrated by their behavior or scared for their safety. We may feel helpless to make things better. Some of us carry guilt about not having enough time or energy for our other children. We make call after call in search of services, some far from home, but often find endless wait lists. And many times we do this alone because so many people are uncomfortable or unwilling to talk about mental illness.

But friends help. And being a great friend in this case really comes down to three things.

  1. Listen

Parenting a child with mental illness can be so isolating. We are careful about protecting our child’s privacy. We are afraid people won’t understand or will judge us. We have to explain ourselves over and over to health care providers. (“It’s not just that I’m frustrated! My child needs help!”) And we are wary of unwanted advice from people who have not lived this. (PLEASE… don’t tell me that I just need to be more strict. Yes, I’ve heard it before and no, it’s not helpful). 

But we worry about our child and we hurt for them, and their needs and behavior impact the whole family. We may be exhausted from our child’s behavior even as our hearts break for them. It’s a lot to hold.

YES, it’s ok to ask us about it. Trust me, we need to talk. So please ask. And then really listen.

2. Believe us

I have been dismissed in a dozen different ways when I describe how my child is struggling or how it affects our family. 

“All kids act out sometimes. Did I tell you about the time MY kid…?” 

“Teenagers are so moody. They’ll grow out of it” 

“She seems so happy at school, and her grades are good.” 

“Everyone has rough days.”

Once, a school IEP team dismissed our concerns and told us “Your child is fine. We think things will be easier when you’re not so tired.” And then they sent us on our way. (I will probably die mad about that one).

Mental illness can be invisible or it can show up in ways that you don’t recognize or expect. It’s still real. Please don’t make us prove it to you. 

Instead, try “I didn’t know things were so difficult.” Or “I’m sorry you’re going through all of this.” Or “You must be really worried about [child’s name].”

Being believed and validated by the people around us is huge.

3. Show up.

When we’re sick or have a sick family member, people rally. Friends organize dinner drop-offs and offer to babysit or drive our other kids to after-school activities. But when the issue is mental illness, families are often met with a lot of… well, nothing. And we are left wondering if people have forgotten that we’re struggling, or if they even understand it at all.

Imagine your friend’s child has leukemia. What would you do for your friend and their family? Drop off groceries? Text regularly to check in? Send a note? Whatever you would do in that situation works for this one too. It doesn’t have to be big to feel like real support. And because mental illness is chronic, it can get better or worse and the experience of your friend’s child and whole family may have different needs at different times. 

Keep checking in. Your friend will notice and it will matter to them. And when they feel supported by people around them, they are better able to meet the needs of their struggling child.

So what do you say to a parent of a child with mental illness?

This one feels hard, but it doesn’t need to be. You don’t need to be a mental health expert. It’s probably no different than what you already do for friends who are having a hard time. Here’s what it can sound like:

How is [your child’s name]?

How can I help?

I’m dropping off coffee. Do you take yours with cream and sugar?

I know [child’s name] is having a tough time, but I loved the way they greeted me with such a sweet smile the other day when we saw each other.

How are things going this week?

Want to take a break and see a movie with me?

Why don’t we get the kids together this weekend? I know [child’s name] is having a tough time and could use a fun day.
[Text message with waving emoji] Thinking about you today!

And finally: how can parents help with their own child’s mental health?

The most important thing to do is make sure you’re familiar with the most common signs of mental illness in children. Even the healthiest, most well-adjusted kids can experience mental health problems. Make sure you know what to watch for.

If you see these signs in a child you care about, take them seriously. Address it with your child and let them know you are worried. Talk to your child’s doctor and ask for ideas and referrals for therapy, medication, or other support. (Yes, therapy can help children, and it doesn’t mean they have to sit still and talk about their feelings to benefit. There are a lot of great options for kids). Talk with the school about how to make sure your child is safe and supported at school. Have your child see the school counselor. People struggling with mental illness can get better with help.

Learn more

If you are looking for strategies to support parents of a child with mental illness, you have already taken the first step towards being a good friend. Here are some resources we love:

Mental Health and Children with Disabilities (video)

Take and Share a Free Mental Health Screening

The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline

The Trevor Project: Help for LGBTQ Youth in Crisis

  • Marisa Howard-Karp, MS

    Chief Operating Officer

    Marisa Howard-Karp has spent her career focused on improving access to health care and education, including 15 years providing professional development training to educators and social workers. As a parent and caregiver to four children with disabilities, she has been part of more than 40 IEP meetings (and counting) and has more experience than she wishes she needed navigating complex services and systems. She loves the work of making these systems easier for other families. She’s a non-profit lifer and a Georgia native who has made her home in the Boston area.

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