9 Tips to Parenting a Child With Mental Illness

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My son was diagnosed with paranoid Schizophrenia when he was 17 years old.

I didn't have any friends who were dealing with similar parenting issues and I, personally, knew almost nothing about Schizophrenia or any other mental illness kids face. When I tried to surface discussions about it, friends and even family members met my inquiries and information with silence or judgement—as if my son or I, as his parent, had done something wrong to bring on such a diagnosis.

To make matters worse, I had seen the movie Sybil, and like many people, I confused Schizophrenia and one of its side effects of hearing voices with Sybil's multiple personalities. My lack of knowledge, confusion, and feeling completely alone in my struggle and unable to talk about it left me scared and frustrated. How would I parent a child suffering from an illness that no one talked about? Where would I go for help? What type of support and resources would I be able to turn to?

One day, I was at the peak of trying to get to the bottom of what to do to help my son. Medication wasn't the whole solution. Different doctors suggested different routes of treatment. The stigma surrounding mental illness was suffocating. I felt completely hopeless and at the same time, responsible for helping my son and being his advocate. In that moment of feeling like I wanted to give up, I turned on the news and a public service announcement came on for a class hosted by the Utah Alliance for the Mentally Ill called Journey of Hope—a Family-to-Family class for family members of those with mental illness. My husband and I immediately signed up.

That was over nearly 20 years ago. Since then I have learned more than I ever wanted to know about this dreaded disease. I have not only advocated for my son's rights, but I also lobbied on behalf of others' rights. I got involved in a way that was both empowering and healing. And my husband and I ultimately ended up getting trained in and later facilitated the Family-to-Family class for years to help other people not feel alone in their struggles.

9 Tips to Parenting a Child With Mental Illness

If you or someone you know is parenting a child with mental illness like Schizophrenia, Schizo-Affective Disorder, Bipolar Disorder or serious Depression, here are nine tips I have found have helped in my own journey:

  1. Know that there is hope! Whether you gain that through your faith, gaining knowledge, building a support system, or through other means, build a reservoir of hope and rely on that to help you push through the difficult times.
  2. Don't be afraid to grieve. Grieving is a natural process that helps us mourn loss, but all too often as parents, we feel like we have to grab the bull by the horns, so to speak, and create a plan, be in control, and more than anything, keep it together. After all, you have other kids to tend to, a suffering child to protect, and a life outside mental illness, even though at times you may not feel like you do. But, making time to grieve, gives you emotional space to heal and grow, which ultimately helps you have hope.
  3. Treatment is available and it works. Keep in mind that treatment comes in many different forms: traditional medicine, therapy, psychiatry/psychology, meditation, non-traditional medicine (vitamin supplements, etc.). Do your research and learn everything you can about the options available to you. With my son, we have changed his medication and treatment plan many, many times in the past 20 years. The key is to keep up to date on what works and to try a plan until you find something that sticks.
  4. Find a good source of information.  The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is the best source of information and support for anyone affected by mental illness. You can find NAMI at, which has links to state organizations. I remember spending hours in the library researching information. Today, the internet makes knowledge available immediately. The key is to search!
  5. Get support! At a certain point, I wanted to know more and to talk to others who were going through similar parenting struggles. I wanted to feel that me and my husband weren't the only ones facing the challenges we were facing. Take NAMI’s Family to Family Education Class was a saving grace for us as parents and for our marriage. It brought us together and helped us support each other as well as others.  This 12 week course will provide you with information and a support group of others who are experiencing similar situations with mental illness. helps you find a class in your area as well as has online communities with discussion groups you can join.
  6. Speak up! Those with mental illnesses often cannot speak out and fight for their rights. Defend those who are suffering. Speak up for them and fight for their rights. And support laws that will help them and help our society put aside this stigma and protect them.
  7. Learn how to advocate for your loved one. Gaining information is the first step. Once you have information, identify what is possible for your child and take steps to support him or her in those areas. For my son, he wanted to graduate from high school. It was a tough road with lots of tutoring and uphill battles, but he did it!
  8. Remember that knowledge is power. As you learn more about these diseases, you will not only feel empowered and hopeful, but your ability to provide loving care for your loved one will increase and the quality of your lives will be much better.
  9. Don't forget yourself or your family! Being the care giver of a child with mental illness is time consuming. Sometimes, it feels that your entire world as a parent revolves around this one child. But, remember to take a step back on a regular basis. Pay attention to your needs. Pay attention to the needs of your other family members.

What resources have you and your family used to deal with Mental Illness? How can we stand up and be a support to those with mental illness or loved ones who have family members who are mentally ill?

Photo courtesy of flickr

Jennifer Johnson is the mother of six and grandmother of nine.  She has served as a NAMI Family to Family teacher and Utah State Teacher trainer for the course.  She also served on the NAMI Utah Board of Directors and the Davis Behavioral Health Board of Trustees for several years.  She has a BA in English from Arizona State University.
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