Following a mental health diagnosis for your child, you may feel concerned, uncertain, and even fearful. On one hand, you finally have some answers. On the other hand, it opens up a world of new questions and emotions.
Even if you were expecting (or hoping for) the diagnosis, it is a lot to digest. While each family’s situation is unique, the immediate impact of a mental health diagnosis brings along with it many unanswered questions. So it’s entirely normal for you to look for information on how to better cope with this new reality while also learning how to help your child.
As you digest what your child’s mental health professional has recently shared with you, consider your own needs in the areas of education, support, and engagement — and keep in mind that your family’s needs will likely shift and change over time.
Here are four steps that can help you adjust to your child’s mental health diagnosis.
1. Understand the Diagnosis
First, it’s important to understand what a diagnosis is. In my own practice as a mental health professional, I find a way to explain a series of symptoms and experiences by focusing on a key aspect. For instance: How are these symptoms causing difficulty functioning at home, at school, and in relationships?
By engaging in assessment and diagnosis, healthcare providers are best able to make effective treatment recommendations. For example, you may visit your medical doctor and describe specific symptoms, such having a fever, sore throat, and difficulty swallowing. Following an evaluation, your doctor may then diagnose you with strep throat. This process of assessment and diagnosis helps your medical provider prescribe antibiotics rather than a cast for your ankle. The bottom line: The function of diagnosing is to better understand and then approach treatment.
Due to the stigma associated with mental health, a mental health diagnosis often feels weightier than a physical-health diagnosis such as a broken bone, an infection, or even more serious concerns. When leaving the urgent care center with a strep-throat diagnoses, individuals often say, “I have strep throat.” They usually don’t internalize it as a new state of being. They don’t say, “I am strep throat” or “I am weak because I have strep throat.”
Yet when receiving a mental health diagnosis, the chances that this new information becomes internalized — seen as a personal descriptor, a flaw, a weakness, or a constant state of being — is much higher. The diagnostic information is being used incorrectly to describe a person rather than being used to describe a problem or an experience.
As you begin to digest words such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, or Autism Spectrum Disorder, remember that a diagnosis is serving two important roles:
- It describes the challenge your child is currently facing, and
- It helps the care team match the best forms of treatment and services.
Remember: The diagnosis is not describing your child or their life.
2. Gather Information
The next step is to seek out more information and education. Naturally, you have questions, and thanks to modern technology, answers are easier than ever to track down. Be a wise consumer when utilizing online resources:
- Check the source.
- Check the year the information was published.
- Check for consistency in information across a variety of sources.
It’s also important to evaluate the source of the information.
- Is the information posted on a forum with the goal of creating connection and support?
- Is the information coming from a reputable medical school with the goal of furthering scientific discovery and understanding?
- Or, is the recommendation coming from a consumer business with a goal of gaining a customer for a product or service?
Evaluating information using these guidelines helps you determine the reliability, validity, and helpfulness of the source.
While you’re gathering information, keep in mind that while education and information are powerful and essential, it’s possible to over-consume information. So, if you begin to notice an increase in your own anxiety or worry, or you have trouble sleeping, working, and/or completing regular household tasks, it may be time to find more balance.
A helpful strategy can be to schedule “worry time” for yourself to help you regain control over any constant worries you may have. Can you limit yourself to 30 minutes a day? What time of day and how many days a week would this be helpful? When you begin your scheduled “worry time,” start a timer for yourself. If you begin to worry again later in the day, reassure yourself that issues can be addressed during tomorrow’s worry time — and make a note if needed on what you want to focus tomorrow’s time on.
3. Seek Support as a Parent
It’s extremely important to ask your family and friends for support, but there are also a variety of external support sources that can help you effectively navigate your child’s mental health diagnosis. For instance, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a mission of educating, advocating, listening, and supporting Americans affected by mental illness. The organization’s website has a “Find Support” tab, where you can find your local NAMI chapter. These chapters often offer informational sessions and ongoing support groups for parents of children with mental health challenges.
Also, feel free to ask your child’s healthcare provider for local resources in the form of a support group, informational sessions, and/or individual counseling if you believe that would be beneficial. And look into possible medical benefits that can help further connect you to services (for example, using Military OneSource for a referral for free counseling sessions; contacting your Employee Assistance Program; and/or using health insurance to help cover the expense of your own counseling).
4. Continue to Engage With Your Child and With Your Routines
One of the most important things that you can do for yourself, your child, and your family is to continue to see your child as your child, your family for its strengths, and yourself as a whole person aside from the role of being a parent. Consider writing out a list of your child’s qualities and strengths, including the aspects of your child that are constant and internal.
As you support your child through short-term or long-term treatment (depending on the appropriate recommendations), engage in parental self-care so that you are better able to attend to both your child’s needs and all of the other aspects of life.
For more information on parental self-care, you can review these articles:
- “How Self-Care Can Make You a Better Parent”
- “Promoting Military Family Resilience Through Self-Care”
Diagnostic news is often a mixed bag of emotions — there is relief and validation for the discovery of answers, fear of the unknown and future, and even anger because these things just don’t seem fair. In the end, your child is still your child. They are still a whole person. You are still a whole person too.
A mental health diagnosis may require adapting routines to better accommodate your child’s needs, but adapting for mental health needs is not all that dissimilar from adapting to a broken bone or food allergy. And, remember, as you champion your child and their well-being, continue to be a friend to yourself as well!