Learning to Let Things Go When Parenting Mentally Ill Kids
The Easter weekend before Tim turned three, he got sick and we spent some quality time in an emergency room. My parents were visiting and while I was gone, my father, the neat freak, got restless and decided to vacuum my family room. He moved a chair – the kind with the skirt around the bottom – and found almost every toy that Tim owned beneath it. He frowned and, according to my mother, uttered something judgmental, while collecting the toys and putting them away properly in the toy box in Tim’s room (Surviving Mental Illness in a Judgmental World).
When Tim came home he ran to the chair, belly flopped onto the floor, threw up the skirt, and reached in for one of his toys. When he saw they had been removed, he stood and shot me a look I’d soon learn was the precursor for a pending rage. My father, perplexed, told me what he’d done and I had to explain to Dad that Tim’s need to hide his toys from whatever imaginary danger he perceived was one of the things I’d learned to let go of when it came to Tim.
Learning the Lesson to Let Things Go
I would come to learn to let things go again and again in the coming years. I’m not a neat freak by any stretch of the imagination, but, like most people, I expect a certain amount of order in my home and a minimum level of hygiene be maintained by my kids. With neurotypical kids, discipline is a standard and effective tool; clean your room or you’re grounded. But kids with severe mental illness don’t respond in the same way to traditional parental discipline.
Consequences Are Meaningless When You're Delusional
Consequences don’t mean anything when your mental illness makes you manic or delusional. And when the response to run-of-the-mill discipline to a delusion is often an anxiety-fueled rage that can be scary and dangerous. So, to keep the peace, I learned that some battles are worth fighting, and some I would have to learn to let go.
An example is Tim’s wardrobe. I absolutely require that Tim wear his pants high enough so that the world doesn't see his underwear, but I am willing to let go of the fact that he must wear at least three shirts and a hoodie every day, no matter the weather (actually Tom – my husband and Tim’s dad - also insisted that Tim learn to do his own laundry for him to let this one go). I know this is a behavior Tim has had ever since he could dress himself based on a long-standing fear of being too exposed. It’s part of his mental illness, and there is no way to discipline one of the voices in his head.
The Hardest Lesson about Letting it Go
One of the hardest lessons about mental illness and letting things go was teaching my neurotypical children that things I let go with Tim were still rules for them, and that fair doesn't always mean equal. Hear more about this predicament in the video, below.