What happens when you first hear that your child has a mental illness? I can imagine you get flooded with a wave of emotions—fear and anxiety, shame and embarrassment, confusion and bewilderment, disbelief and pain.
It is definitely easier to deal with the diagnosis of an illness in yourself, your partner, your parents or your siblings. But dealing with the diagnosis of an illness or disability in your child is a completely different ball game. And when it is a mental illness it seems to take on a whole different dimension. There seems to be an added layer of complexity which need not necessarily be so. I am going to make an attempt here to understand this phenomenon a little better.
So, what happens when you first hear that your child has a mental illness? I can imagine you get flooded with a wave of emotions—fear and anxiety, shame and embarrassment, confusion and bewilderment, disbelief and pain. Dread, dread of what lies ahead, dread of what the world will say—to you, about you, to your child, about your child. A sinking feeling. Why me? Why my child? And guilt. How did I forget guilt? Guilt for having done something wrong as a parent; guilt for having the wrong genes; guilt for being at fault; guilt for not creating the right environment; and guilt for putting your child through this.
Phew! That’s a lot of emotions! And most of us never stop to recognize that they even exist, let alone remember to take out time to deal with them.
We are caught up with denial on the one hand, and with the cloud of worry that seems to have shrouded our future aspirations for our child, on the other. Will my child become independent and be able to achieve his or her potential? What kind of a life will my child have? What would it mean for my future as a parent? As an individual? As a spouse? Often, the marital relationship takes a huge toll, as the couple, so over-wrought with guilt on being the carrier of the ‘defective’ gene, indulges in the blame game. And hard as it may be to believe, given the futility of this game, this happens even amongst the most educated and enlightened ones!
Denial prevents us from facing the situation head on. What we need to do is to understand the diagnosis, get a second opinion, confirm it, and figure out the best way forward. We need to read, read and read some more, on how to understand the situation for ourselves, how to deal with it, and how to explain it to our child. Also, how to explain it to others in the family or support network who may need to know how best to support the child; how to explain it to the world at large.
While all this is going on, it is important to keep our sight firmly planted on the backdrop that says, “This is no one’s fault—not yours, not your child’s. Acceptance is the only path forward!” To use the now famous metaphor—most children are like dandelions that are able to take root and survive anywhere. But your child is like an orchid—fragile but beautiful, and capable of blooming spectacularly if given the special care needed by an orchid. The right parenting and right environment can help ‘orchid’ children grow into creative, successful and lovable members of society.
So what does this mean? How do you create the right environment to nurture the orchids?
Acceptance is key—accept the child; accept the diagnosis; and, make sure the child understands it is not their fault.
Acknowledge the child’s feelings, non-judgmentally. Children tend to hold themselves together in school and in front of others; they need the space, freedom, and permission to let their guard down and collapse at home, if they have to. This does not mean that they are ‘acting up’ at home, or that they are playing ‘victim’. Be sensitive to their privacy needs, as well.
Keep the lines of communication open. Talk to children about things other than academics such as feelings, ideas, moral dilemmas, and maybe even failure.
Praise generously, immediately and publicly, even for small accomplishments, but reprimand, if you must, gently and privately; positive feedback is always more powerful than negative feedback.
Focus on discovering your child’s strengths and talking about them often, knowing that each child is unique and has its strengths.
Support the child socially, since they may struggle in building relationships—it does not help to let them sink or swim on their own in the sea of peer relationships. They need a life-vest and that ought to be you!
And, most importantly, get the right professional help not only for your child, but also for yourself.
Yes, for yourself, because to be able to do all of this for your child, it is imperative that you accept and befriend your own emotions. Take care of yourself and remember to recharge your own batteries. You need to bear in mind that none of this is a reflection of your own failure as a parent, as a spouse, or even as a human being. You need to spare yourself the unnecessary, unproductive and emotional turmoil that may be brewing within you. Everyone has problems in life, and you need to consciously remember that. Everyone is fighting some private battle at some point in their life, so in that you are not alone. You need to stop catastrophizing outcomes and learn to live in the moment, knowing that you cannot control the future no matter how hard you try. In addition to everything else, you also may need to focus on helping other children in the house cope, and keep the marriage intact, if possible. All this without professional help for yourself may be a tall order!
Maullika Sharma is a Bangalore-based counselor who quit her corporate career to work in the mental health space. Maullika works with Workplace Options, a global employee wellbeing company, and practices at the Reach Clinic, Bangalore. If you have any questions pertaining to this column please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.