Advocating for A Child with Mental Illness

January 4, 2015 Christina Halli

Two weeks ago my son Bob told me he got a Saturday detention for skipping gym class. He said they were swimming and he didn't want to swim. Later, I went online and discovered Bob was failing physical education (PE). This was maddening to me since Bob was an athlete and strong swimmer. I knew instinctively this had nothing to do with swimming and everything to do with my son's mental illness. The screaming question in my head was, "What do I do now?"

One of the most difficult parts of raising a child with mental illness is knowing when to step in to advocate on his or her behalf and when to back off and let your child struggle so they can figure it out on their own.

Advocating for a child with mental Illness is a balancing act. Sometimes mentally ill children need support while sometimes they need to stand on their own.

Bob's PE class was one of these baffling situations. I could contact the school and intervene with the goal of attaining accommodations so Bob passed PE. Or I could do nothing, as Bob and his therapist would wish of me, so Bob could use his coping skills (or not) and take responsibility for his actions. Amy, Bob's therapist, has told me many times that Bob must endure the consequences of his choices.

I should mention Bob is 17 years old and a junior in high school. He was diagnosed with social anxiety at age eight and bipolar disorder at age 12. I have been passionately advocating for him for years.

Parents Want to Support their Children with Mental Illness

I chose to intervene. As parents of children with mental illnesses, it is extremely painful for us to do nothing and watch our children suffer or fail, especially when we know it is the illness driving our children's behavior. In this case, I was certain Bob's social anxiety disorder was getting the best of him. Though he was willing to fail gym; I was afraid by doing so, Bob's anxiety would grow stronger making dressing for future PE classes more futile. I wanted Bob to get in that dang pool.

I asked Bob why he wouldn't dress. He said he didn't have a suit that fit, he hated getting wet, and he didn't have enough time after PE to get ready for Spanish. First, I bought him a new swimsuit. Then I talked with Bob's teacher who agreed to give Bob more time for changing before and after class. Much to my disappointment, Bob still wouldn't swim.

A week later the counselor, vice-principal, and principal were involved. They told me it was considered an unexcused absence when a student refused to dress for gym. Three unexcused absences resulted in an F for the semester. Bob would be required to retake the class and pass in order to graduate next year. In the meantime, continued unexcused absences required further disciplinary action.

I felt mentally exhausted and defeated. I told Bob it was up to him. I suggested he talk to the teacher himself and work something out.

Children with Mental Illness Want to Succeed on Their Own

The next day, Bob excitedly told me about the deal he made with the teacher and vice-principal. He would go to school early and swim by himself for three days before Christmas break. I received a skeptical email from the teacher. Bob's dad didn't think he would follow through. I held my breath, hoping Bob would make the right decision.

Sure enough, Bob did.

The lesson for me continues to be one of balance. I'm sure that if I hadn't intervened, Bob would not have had the opportunity to make the plan that led to his success. Moving forward, I know I need to incrementally back off so Bob can stand on his own two feet.

I am proud of Bob. Sink or swim, he chose to swim.

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APA Reference
Halli, C. (2015, January 4). Advocating for A Child with Mental Illness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 19 from

Author: Christina Halli

January, 5 2015 at 8:59 am

this is a great blog and theme the difficulty you face as a Mum and the problems he faces day to day are so tough - after my teenage mental health my Mum did her upmost to encourage me to stay active and walk and get out and about my recent year of huge change has impacted her like never before - as you may know - happy son happy mum - even a diagnosis of Osteoporosis didn't affect us in fact I got her nutrition and exercise up to such levels everyone is impressed trying to figure out how to share my blogs on here new member

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