3 Myths About Parenting a Child With Mental Illness
Myths about parenting a child with mental illness are harmful, so let's straighten some of them out. If your child struggles with mental illness, you've faced judgment and unsolicited advice from almost everybody. None of it compares to the judgment and fear we heap on ourselves. It's easy to get dragged down by ignorance and stigma. Debunking common myths, then, may make the journey through parenting a child with mental illness a little easier.
Myth: Bad Parenting Causes Mental Illness
The term "mental illness" is broad and the "cause" is even broader ("What Causes Mental Illness?: Genetics, Environment, Risk Factors").
Alternatively, there are things like posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that are, by definition, triggered by outside events. The child either witnesses or personally experiences an event that could've caused serious harm or death. So, yes, "bad parenting" in the form of abuse and neglect can cause a mental illness like PTSD. However, PTSD can also be caused by natural disasters, living in violent neighborhoods, and other traumas.
Sometimes, genetics plays a role. While researchers haven't found specific genes for specific disorders, certain genes can be passed down to children that make them more likely to develop mental illness. Genes can also affect how someone responds to certain medications.2
So, yes, abusive parenting can trigger certain mental illnesses, but average parents aren't "causing" mental illness with their parenting style. It's really a hodgepodge of factors.
Myth: Parents Medicate Their Children Because They Can't Handle Them
This type of thinking leads to stigma and stigma can prevent people from getting help. Medication needs differ by individual.3 Some children need medication, some don't. Some children need a combination of medication and behavioral interventions. The decision is up to a family, their providers, and whomever they trust.
My family chose medications because my son's hyperactivity and destructive outbursts were so out of control that he couldn't learn. Even worse, he was a danger to himself. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is on a spectrum, so some people can use learned skills to manage it while others, like my son, require medication and intensive classroom supports.
Technically, you could say I "couldn't handle" my son. Not because of poor parenting, though, or a lack of ability or desire. His behaviors were just beyond the point where parenting alone could keep him safe.
Myth: Parenting a Child with Mental Illness Never Gets Better
Prior to my son's hospitalization, after which he turned a new page, I was terrified and angry most days. I often felt helpless. Though I've never resented or hated my child, I have met parents in similar situations who do. Maybe the judgment from others, and the overbearing stigma, finally got to them. Maybe they truly believe their child is a "bad seed" or will never get better.
I've spent over 15 years working with adults with mental illnesses. Some struggled since childhood. Some developed mental illness as adults. Yes, a few have had devastating outcomes. Most, though, get better, and they do it on their own terms.
Never lower your expectations, but consider that you may need to change them. Consider that your expectations of your child's abilities, and your child's actual abilities, may be different. For instance, I was an overachieving child, the type who cried if I got an A- in class. I was planning my college career while in elementary school.
I did not have ADHD.
If I expected my son to operate at the same level I did, I would feel defeated daily. Maybe he'll get there one day, but right now, if he manages Cs this next quarter, that will be amazing. It will mean he managed to successfully transition to middle school, sit in class long enough to get most work done, and not get suspended. Two years ago, I would've thought such a thing impossible.
My son is capable of getting better. Your child is, too. Don't torture yourself with these myths of parenting a mentally ill child.
- HealthyPlace. Neurodevelopmental Disorders Community. Accessed October 21, 2018.
- National Institute of Mental Health. "Looking at My Genes: What Can They Tell Me About My Mental Health?" Reprinted 2017.
- National Institute of Mental Health. "Mental Health Medications". October 2016.
David, M. (2018, October 22). 3 Myths About Parenting a Child With Mental Illness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, September 21 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/parentingchildwithmentalillness/2018/10/3-myths-about-parenting-a-child-with-mental-illness