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10 Tips For Parents: Navigating Your Child's Mental Health Diagnosis

“Where do I go from here? I have an infinite amount of questions and not a single answer. Where do I pull the strength from to get through this?”

Your child has been diagnosed with a mental health condition. The weight of this reality feels heavier than the little strength you have left to keep yourself standing. You’re doing everything you can to keep your physical and emotional self together for the sake of your child.

But you’re lost. You’re drained. You’ve found very limited information to suggest that stability and happiness are even an option.

Does this sound familiar? If so, you’re in the right spot.

My parents stood upon feeble legs and fought through the frustration, confusion, and sense of failure when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2001. I had just turned 17.

We felt like a family lost at sea and I was a hostage in a world of my own.

We knew nothing about mental illness until they could only see me through the porthole window of my door in a psychiatric hospital. That was just my first stay in a hospital.

They searched with every fiber of their being to find a glimmer of hope that the current psychotic state of their daughter would be temporary.

They hoped I would get the care I needed to stabilize. They hoped for answers. And they hoped that I would return to being the carefree and outgoing girl they’d always known.

But hope is different from faith.

Hope means having a want and desire for a certain thing to happen. They had that. What they didn’t have was faith.

Their interactions with the mental health system regarding my care were nothing short of horrific, and information about mental illness splashed online gave them little to no faith that recovery was possible.

As a parent, you deserve to have both hope and faith. You’re just as deserving of the patience, validation, encouragement, and guidance as your child.

Their pain and frustration doesn't end where you begin; it's an uncomfortable merging that you experience alongside them.

The suffering of your child travels like bolts of lightning through your arms and into your chest, as if you were experiencing the highs and lows right along with them.

Please be kind to yourself.

Do not take fault for things that aren’t yours to own. Take comfort in knowing that it’s okay to not be okay.

You’ll get this figured out, so give yourself a moment (or a million moments) to take this precious time at the beginning phases to explore and honor the multitude of emotions you’re experiencing.

They are your feelings, and you are entitled to them.

Here are 10 suggestions to help you navigate the next steps through your child's mental health diagnosis:

1. Your child’s diagnosis is not a direct reflection of your parenting or love for them.

It does not mean that you did something to cause this. Even if mental illness runs in your family, you did not get the choice of whether it was passed down or not.

2. It’s okay to have absolutely no clue what to do or where to start.

There are many family and peer-based resources and national programs to help get you started on your journey. Education is key! My #1 recommendation? Contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness at and find a local chapter in your community. The NAMI family-to-family classes were a game changer for my parents.

3. Do not be surprised if you find that the majority of news coverage about mental illness is negative.

There are LOTS of success stories out there, so don’t allow the scary news coverage that sells and gets attention to get you off track. Follow credible sources such as 988, SAMHSA, Mental Health America, NAMI, and the National Council on Mental Wellness.

4. Learn what you can about options.

What are the options for treatment? What options are available for different types of therapy? Medications? Peer-to-peer support? Naturopathic treatments? Family support groups? Disability resource centers? Financial resources? School-based support? 211 is a great place to start. Looking for therapy? I always recommend starting your search with Psychology Today.

5. Do everything in your power to stay present.

There will be a mixture of both good and bad experiences, however, staying present in the moment will help you think through your decisions more clearly. One of my favorite ways to calm my nervous system is through box breathing. Exhale for 4 seconds, hold at the bottom for 4 seconds, inhale for 4 seconds, hold at the top for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds...REPEAT!

6. Connect with other parents.

Finding other adults with similar experiences will help you create a network of support for yourself. If you don’t know of any other parents to connect with, you can talk to mine! Again, reach out to the good folks at NAMI. You can join one of their education courses or support groups with other parents and caretakers in similar situations.

7. Be patient.

Progress does not always happen on the timeline you or your child may have set forth, but it doesn’t mean that progress isn’t taking place. Small steps will always grow into big steps. Therapy takes time. Attitude shifts take time. Medications take time. Keep at it.

8. Stop the stigma.

Don’t allow other people's inaccurate definitions and assumptions to paint the picture of who your child is. Be ready to sharpen your advocacy skills here, because you’ll be using them! Inspire others with your drive to keep society from labeling your child as anything less than beautifully whole.

9. Your self-care is just as important as your child's.

Take time for yourself. Step outside of your role as a caregiver, and into your role as a human being deserving of peace, comfort, and solace. Get a massage, see a movie, seek counseling, get creative, get outside, eat well, seek support from friends, get sufficient sleep, go to happy hour, pray or meditate, and if you can…LAUGH. And do it regularly. I promise it will help.

10. This is only temporary. The pain and struggle you and your family are feeling right now will not last forever. I am living proof of are many others! You deserve to have HOPE and FAITH. And you are not alone in finding it.

With love,

Erin Callinan, MSW

Consultant, Speaker, Author

Beneath The Brave



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