“I can’t believe I didn’t see this sooner.”
It’s an agonizing moment when you realize your child is possibly dealing with a mental illness. You’re a good parent, you care about your kids, and yet somehow in the midst of your busy military family life, you missed the signs.
According to Jill Palmer, Clinic Director at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Endeavors in San Antonio, you’re not alone. Military families face enormous stress with moving every few years, starting new schools, adapting to new communities and everything that comes with military life. And this stress makes it easy to miss the signs of an underlying mental illness.
In children, these signs might include:
- Being highly anxious or worried about fitting in schools
- Being overly concerned about physical appearance
- Crying, being angry or overreacting to things
- Appearing frightened or out of control
- Feeling sad or hopeless beyond what might be normal after a move
Why it’s so easy to miss the sign of mental illness
“For military families, these transitions happen frequently,” Ms. Palmer explains. “It can be very difficult to move through all these things – unpacking, getting your kids enrolled in their new schools, finding care for younger children.
“By the time someone notices that a child is struggling more than we might expect them to be with the transition, we notice there’s often a negative connotation for the parents,” she continues.
The fact is, things get missed in the busyness of military life, and it’s important not to add guilt on top of the stress that parents are already facing.
“There seems to be a sense from teachers or other providers that maybe the parents could have prevented this if they’d been paying better attention,” Ms. Palmer notes. And that’s often just not fair.
“Signs of depression or anxiety can be missed so easily in times of transition. Parents might understandably think that their daughter doesn’t want to get out of bed because she’s worried about making new friends. Or their son is still getting adjusted and that’s why he’s acting out in class.”
In reality, Ms. Palmer believes that families are often not listened to when they do raise questions about their child’s mental state, too often being told that these adjustments just take time. She believes that this kind of response from teachers is probably due to a lack of understanding about the signs of mental illness in children.
The best advice? Trust yourself to know
“You know your child. If you’ve moved three times before, and this time they are not adjusting as well, that’s an important clue,” Ms. Palmer explains. “Don’t hesitate to say something and find help. Talk to people who might be able to help you sort out the signs.”
She recommends you start with your child’s primary care provider, as they will have your family’s medical history and know what’s baseline for your child and what looks out of place. They’ll also be able to refer you to the right people for help.
The counseling team at your child’s new school can also be a great resource. They can help you understand the troubling signs you might be noticing. They can also get you connected to resources in your community that can help you build a strong support system in your new home.
The most important thing to realize is that help is available. The military has come a long way in understanding how this lifestyle impacts mental health, not just in the military professional but in their families as well. Reach out to the support available, and embrace the fact that – while we are all far from perfect – we are all doing the best we can.
To learn more, check out our free downloadable guides for military families, full of comprehensive information on supporting mental wellness in your own family.