Self-Care for the Parent Whose Child Struggles with Mental Health
- Danielle Ayers Jones iBelieve Contributing Writer
- 2022 25 Apr
The November darkness closed in, but the flames in the fireplace flickered warmly. The candles on the table in the restaurant glowed with a soothing light. I was meeting one of my dearest friends for dinner and I was relieved to be out of the house and have a night to myself.
“How are you doing?” she asked innocently.
“I’m—not really—um, doing that well,” I faltered, eyes suddenly filling with tears.
“What’s going on?” my friend asked in concern reaching out to take my hand.
I described the disorienting family situation we’d suddenly been plunged into for the past two months. Sometimes it felt like we were barely going to make it to the end of the day. We had returned from vacation at the beach and had begun the school year with high hopes. But one of my children had had a sudden onset of disorienting emotional and physical behaviors that had landed us in the pediatrician’s office and eventually, sitting on a sofa across from a psychiatrist.
It would be months later before the psychiatrist would finally officially diagnose my child with what I had already excruciatingly figured out with the insight of well-experienced friends: my child had Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and it was wreaking havoc on our daily life.
Not only was my child experiencing terrible mental distress, but I also was pushed to the edge of emotional and physical exhaustion with very little relief. As we waited weeks for doctors’ appointments, tests, and results, I knew I had to do something to help me cope in a healthy way with what was going on. It did no good for my child to be having breakdowns and for me to be on the verge of having one myself.
We had a new normal, at least for the time being, and I was going to need to parent my child through a difficult period while retaining my own mental, emotional, and physical health. I discovered that in times of intense strain, it is an imperative lifeline to make time for my soul, make time for my body, and make time for community.
Making Time for My Soul
The feeling of unpredictability and the need to “brace” oneself is a common feeling among parents with kids who have mental health needs. As my friend Melissa puts it, “When [my son] was younger and couldn't express himself, I never knew what I was going to get every day. When I would hear him get up in the morning, I would brace myself for whatever was coming. It was, and still is, so unpredictable.”
One way of bracing myself has been turning to God each morning before the day even begins. Spending time in Bible reading, prayer, and journaling has helped strengthen me for the emotional and spiritual needs of both myself and my children. A natural introvert, it became a necessary lifeline that I wake up early to have some alone time before the day began.
To some people, making time for the soul may feel selfish at first. My friend Briana shares that “For so long it did not come naturally to me; it felt selfish and like a misuse of my time.” But eventually, she realized it would ultimately be a detriment to herself and her family if she didn’t make time for "soul care." "I wake up and take ten minutes minimum to sit at the front of my house where the sun rises each day, listen to the birds, allow myself to enjoy their song, the quiet. I pray sometimes during this time. Often, I just sit and try to quiet my thoughts from rushing to the day's needs.”
Guarding some pockets of time each day to recharge and center oneself spiritually on God’s Word, praying, or other spiritual disciplines are often part of all Christians’ lives. However, when an ongoing crisis becomes part of the everyday, it’s even more important to not let this time be pushed aside. I craved it each day. I knew it was literally the “fuel” to help me keep going.
Making Time for My Body
Exercise is a benefit both physically and mentally, and when faced with never-ending stress, it’s a benefit parents need. As my friend Jess described, “Taking daily walks helped me keep breathing during this time—mentally and physically. I found that my mind needed fresh air as much as my body did. Sometimes I walked alone so I could pray, worship, or think. Sometimes my husband and I walked together so we could talk freely. Other times I would ask my son to come with me so we could be together without any agenda.”
I, too, found that a healthy release of the stress that I kept stored in my body became an important part of my well-being during this intense time. Taking a walk around the neighborhood in the fresh air or doing yoga were two ways that were physically and mentally helpful to me.
Making Time for Community
A common theme for parents who are supporting children with mental health challenges is loneliness and isolation. It can be tricky to find an understanding community because as a parent of a child with anxiety or OCD, we might not have the freedom to completely share our child’s story, especially if they are a teenager. Melissa pinpoints the parental struggle when she shares that, “What has been the most challenging is how isolating it can be. When your child has a [visible physical] medical diagnosis, it can be more obvious to others and parents are able to talk about it. Because of mental health stigma, we as parents can't just tell everyone what is happening. We need to protect our kid’s privacy while also trying to find support.”
Also, parents who’ve never experienced having a child with mental health problems may not be understanding. It’s important to find a community of support who will offer nonjudgmental understanding and possibly even experience in that area. “Mental health struggles are lonely for the person with the struggle and for the people supporting them,” Jess shared. “I couldn’t talk to just anyone about such a sensitive topic, but God put a couple of other parents in my life whose children were experiencing similar issues.”
In the Christian community especially, it’s important that it’s understood that clinical anxiety, OCD, and other mental health diagnoses aren’t simply spiritual issues that can be prayed away. Mind, body, and spirit work together in complicated ways, and so finding friends who realize this is paramount for the parent who is dealing with such draining circumstances. “I often feel alone in this experience, especially as a Christian mom,” shares Briana. “I also see my children's loneliness which in turn exacerbates my own. Having kids with mental health diagnoses is a major strain on marriage as both spouses are rarely able to read all the same information on their child's illness, attend all the therapy appointments together, and field all the needs together. There is often strife on how to address issues that come up.”
Community is a must for parents who find themselves raising a child with a mental health diagnosis. It may be found with best friends who are already in your life, or in-person, or virtual support groups designed to offer specific help. I knew I needed people around me who knew what was going on, and I’m thankful for such understanding friends. I also discovered a lot more people than I realized had children struggling with exactly the same thing.
I’ll never forget the time I was in the middle of cleaning the house when my friend showed up unexpectedly with a candle, cheese, bread, and flowers just to let me know she was thinking about me. Did it solve the problem? No, but it reminded me that she was there to support me.
A year and a half later, things are very different for our family. With a proper diagnosis and therapy, our days are no longer dominated by OCD compulsions that disrupt normal life. It doesn’t mean OCD has completely disappeared, but it does make less frequent and chronic appearances. That said, it is still an ongoing part of our lives.
Fighting anxiety and OCD as a child is very difficult. Being the main support for that child presents its own challenges. That is why it was so important for me to set up life-giving rhythms to care for my soul, my physical health, and have a community of support. Mental health challenges may never go away completely, but there is hope to not just survive, but thrive in spite of it.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, I’d love to share some resources that have been important in my journey:
When a Family Member Has OCD by Jon Hershfield
A must-have book for someone with a family member who has OCD. The first section is educational about what OCD is. The second part gives practical advice for how to deal with a family member's compulsions and how to seek a therapist.
This Beautiful Truth by Sarah Clarkson
A memoir about how Sarah Clarkson's spiritual life was impacted by her struggle with OCD. Beautifully written, poignant, and thought-provoking.
Different by Sally and Nathan Clarkson
A unique and helpful book because not only is it written from a parent's perspective, but also from the son’s perception of himself as a child struggling with OCD, ADD, and ADHD.
A treasure trove of information and listings for therapists and support.
A fantastic resource with YouTube videos, social media, classes, as well as a membership for virtual support for parents and their kids who struggle with anxiety, OCD, and other issues.
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Articles, treatment options, support groups, and research resources.
Photo Credit: ©Vladimir-Vladimirov
Danielle Ayers Jones has been a contributing writer for the online magazine, Ungrind, and has written for Thriving Family, Clubhouse, Jr., Radiant, and Relevant. She also combines her love of writing and photography on her blog, www.danielleayersjones.com. It’s a space where she seeks to find beauty in everyday places, joy in hardship, and encouragement in unexpected places. Danielle currently lives in Maryland with her husband and three children. You can follow her on Twitter @daniajones.