Parents: What Not to Say When Your Child Suffers with a Mental Health Issue

“You’ll get over it.” “Snap out of it.””It’s not a big deal.” “Stop whining, it’s not that bad.” “Go do ___________, you’ll feel so much better.”stop “Quit complaining. When I was your age I never ___________.” “Why are you being so difficult?”

Have you said these things? They’re not bad. They make sense for the average child. But . . .then you discovered there was an explanation behind their behaviors. Mental illness.

Does your child suffer with depression, bipolar disorder, or some other mental health issue? Do you struggle to know what to say on their rough days? Most parents weren’t prepared. Like me, you’ve probably blown it many times. How could we know to do it differently? We never expected this to happen. We did the best we could, but sadly, sometimes we’ve wounded our beloved child.

I didn’t realize my daughter’s moodiness was more than a case of the blues. She wasn’t just in a bad mood or being ornery for no reason – which is common behavior for teens. I had no idea what was really going on. So how could I not end up saying all the wrong things?

As parents of children living with mental illness here’s a good goal:

Avoid using belittling or dismissive language.

It’s demeaning and sends a message we never intended. It says, “Your feelings don’t matter.”

Your daughter or son will shut down and quit talking to you so fast your head will spin. When they repress their feelings, bigger problems tend to develop: Self-injury (including eating disorders), self-medicating with alcohol or drugs (or pornography), and more.

Instead, we could say: “I’m so sorry you’re having a rough day.” “I have time to listen, if you want to talk about what your feeling.” (don’t try to fix them) “Is there anything I can do to help?” “I’ll be here for you if you need me.” “I want you to know you’re not alone. I’m always here for you.” (Be sure and use “I” statements.)

Here’s a practical tip: Plan ahead. What would you be comfortable saying when you’re likely to make a dismissive comment? What feels natural? Get comfortable speaking those statements out loud. Try to memorize a few. Write them down or save them as a note in your iphone you can refer to quickly and easily when needed.

Of course you can’t be your child’s counselor. Don’t try. It would be a turn off. Meeting with their counselor for ideas to improve communication would be worth every penny. But you CAN be an understanding, approachable, nonjudgmental parent. I promise you, it makes a huge difference.

Please don’t be too hard on yourself. No one’s perfect. If you realize you’ve blown it – or when – admit it, ask them to forgive you, ask God, too – then  forgive yourself and move on.  And don’t try to be your child’s friend. That’s not what they need, either. They need you to be a supportive parent.

truthThe way you respond to your child’s mental health challenges today lays a foundation for the kind of relationship you’ll have with them in the future. So remember – words have the power to wound, but also to heal. Today’s a new day. There’s hope for all of us to learn and grow and do better.

When I asked God for help doing hard things this Bible verse encouraged me:

“Summon your power, O God, show us your strength…as you have done before.” (Psalm 68:28)

Yes, Lord, with your power and strength we can speak words of encouragement, empathy, and support to our children – even when we don’t feel like it.

In Your Son’s Name.  Amen.



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