Many moms and dads are facing the challenge of parenting a child with a mental health diagnosis — but often in silence. Due to the history of mental health stigma, especially in the church, it may be hard for pastors and church staff to vocalize when mental health issues are occurring in their own homes. Self-blame or embarrassment may keep church leaders from seeking appropriate help for their children and family.
Where are these parents to start? How do they help their child? And what resources are available to them? Based on my experience in child and adolescent psychology, I want to encourage you if you find yourself asking some of these questions.
Keeping a right perspective
The challenging journey of parenting a child with mental illness begins with perspective.
Christian parents should strive to view children and parenting through the lens of a biblical worldview and sound theology. An intricate and creative God designed the human body with great intricacy. We are not simply spiritual beings, but relational beings comprised of biology, emotions, and spirit. The result of sin (Genesis 3) is the corruption in every area of our beings, both physical and spiritual. The Fall negatively affects our development, biology, emotion, souls, and most importantly our relationship with God and others. These areas intertwine and impact overall functioning. Disruption in any of these areas can result in mental health issues. While many mental health issues lean more toward biological underpinnings (i.e., Tourette syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder, learning disability), other mental health issues are more directly influenced by relationships and emotion.
Keeping this perspective in mind regarding children’s spiritual and physical development can help you have realistic expectations of your child. From a spiritual standpoint, you need to consider whether your child has put their faith in Christ. An unbeliever hasn’t yet been given a new heart that is being transformed by the Holy Spirit. Additionally, a new believer is still developing skills, like discernment and self-control. From a physical perspective, children’s brains and language skills are not fully developed. Childhood disobedience and your child’s lack of understanding should not be surprising in light of these standards. Disobedience, temper tantrums, forgetfulness, etc., do not necessarily constitute a mental health diagnosis. But, a mental health condition can be considered when your child’s issues can’t be explained by normal development, poor choices, or lack of spiritual engagement.
For some parents, the potential of having a child with a mental health diagnosis may feel overwhelming or shameful. However, viewing mental health from a theological perspective can help parents understand the reality of living in a world broken by sin. Mental health issues are complex and are often no one’s fault (John 9). There are often no easy answers because of the complexity of mental health issues. Instead, we can trust that God is sovereign over your children’s struggles and that he will be glorified as you walk down an often complicated road. Such a road requires wisdom from the Lord, patience, and plenty of resources to be able to discern a child’s need.
How to help
If your child is struggling, I want to give you some resources. You can help your child by equipping yourself with tools like knowing warning signs, the right questions to ask, and where to seek help.
1. Warning signs
- Insufficient or delayed development
- Significant change in appetite or weight
- Extreme irritability, outbursts, or meltdowns
- Inattentiveness or hyperactivity
- Loss of interest in activities or friends
- Poor academic performance
- Sudden changes in sleep habits
- Persistent sadness or frequent crying
- Reckless or harmful behaviors
- Excessive fears or worries
- Behavioral problems across settings
- Persistent nightmares
- Withdrawn from family and friends
- Enuresis or encopresis
- School refusal
- Developmentally inappropriate sexualized behaviors or advanced sexual knowledge
If you find your child exhibits some of these signs, it may be time to consult with your child’s pediatrician or a mental health professional. If you are not sure, try gathering information from other key adults who are involved in your child’s life. For example, you may want to ask your child’s teacher, “Compared to other same-age and same-gender peers, is my child more or less attentive at school?”
2. Questions to ask
When considering your child’s behaviors and struggles, here are some key questions to help gauge the severity of the issues.
- How long has the behavior occurred?
- Is it a significant change from your child’s formal disposition?
- Does the behavior occur across settings?
- Does it affect your child’s functioning?
- How often is the behavior occurring?
- What are the current stressors in your child’s life?
- Does the behavior occur in relation to a stressor or stimuli?
- Any known history of trauma?
- Why are you seeking help for the problem now?
Negative behaviors that are persistent, occur across settings, affect a child’s functioning, and are not related to a specific stimuli or current stressor are more likely to indicate the presence of a mental health issue. If there are current stressors in your child’s life that seem to exacerbate their functioning, talk with your child, try to alleviate unnecessary stressors (i.e., making all A’s in school), and develop tools to help your child cope. Take your child through Scripture, helping them grasp God’s love for them and his sovereignty, even in the midst of difficult circumstances. And pray for them and with them.
3. Build community
One risk factor for developing or maintaining a mental health condition is a lack of social support. To state it another way: having social support is a resiliency factor for a good prognosis. Scripture and clinical research both show that community with others is vital. As a parent, seek to provide ample opportunities for your child to make and keep friendships. Sports, school, extracurricular activities, youth groups, church, and neighborhoods are all potential avenues for social involvement. Additionally, seek out other Christian families to regularly interact with. Children and other believing adults can be invaluable support for your child.
4. Quality and quantity time with your child
God has placed a wonderful and enormous task on parents. He has called us to steward the children he has given us. Part of stewardship is being present in the lives of those children. Research has repeatedly shown that a lack of parents’ physical or emotional presence has devastating effects on children. Parents, don’t underestimate the influence you have on your child. Spend time with your child. Listen to your child. Be present.
5. Resources to read
I encourage parents to read about parenting, mental health issues, and normal childhood development. It’s hard to understand abnormal behavior if you don’t have a good grasp of normal behavior. Here are some resources for recommended reading:
- “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish
- “Full Circle Parenting” by Jimmy and Kristin Scroggins
- “Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family” by Paul David Tripp
- “Yardsticks: Child and Adolescent Development Ages 4-14” by Chip Wood
- “Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys” by Stephen James
One of the best places to start when seeking counseling or treatment for your child is your child’s pediatrician. Neurological and medical issues can sometimes mimic mental health issues, so it is important to rule out medical issues first. To find counselors, evaluators, or therapists, you may want to check with your insurance plan and your pediatrician.
Saying, “I need help for my child,” may feel humbling. But remember, as God works in the life of your child, he is also working on you. May you lean into him and steward well the child he has entrusted to you.