How do you help your child without hurting yourself?
One of the most painful experiences can be watching your adult child reject the help you know they need. What can you do when your son or daughter refuses to accept they have a mental illness or need medication? I asked my dad about it because I was one of those adult children.
It was a spring afternoon and my dad and I were listening to one of his favourite classical CDs. I asked him what advice he would give to other parents of adult children who have mental illness. He prefaced his thoughts with this: it probably isn’t what parents want to hear, but it’s what we went through and what helped.
1. It’s going to be a long difficult journey, so hang on. If you’re prepared for an arduous lengthy process it helps to manage unrealistic expectations. Paradoxically it will be a little easier to endure the trek. Don’t be discouraged. Just because it’s taking a long time, doesn’t mean recovery won’t happen.
2. Stay in contact with your adult child no matter what, even if they don’t want to be in contact with you. My parents tried to stay in contact with me by phone. When I wouldn’t return their calls (which was usually the case), they would drive by my house to see if a light was on. When they didn’t know where I was living (because couch surfing was common for me), they attempted to keep in touch through my friends. This might seem extreme, even invasive. But my behavior had been so erratic and perilous it was crucial to have some communication, to have some way to intervene if a crisis occurred.
Reflections on what my father said and what my parents did:
3. The more my parents offered help, the more I pushed them away. But having them stay in touch with me, no matter how intrusive it felt, kept me safe (or as safe as possible at the time). Even when our encounters were filled with yelling, swearing, the slamming of car doors, it didn’t matter. What was pivotal was that they had contact with me.
4. Although I fought the support my parents extended to me for over 5 years, their unconditional love always reached me, even when we were arguing. When the time came and I finally realized I needed help, the unwavering acceptance they had shown allowed me to reach out to them for that help. I knew they were my safe place to fall even though I had pushed and pushed and pushed them away so many times.
5. My parents were clear: they were open and accepting of my diagnosis. They didn’t have any judgement about mental illness. So if I chose to reach out for help, they would be there with open arms. This approach provided fertile ground for my own acceptance.
The timetable for recovery is different for everyone. And the definition of recovery needs to be flexible and fluid. If you, as a parent, are feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and frightened, this is natural. This IS an overwhelming, scary and tiring experience.
Get support from other family members going through the same ordeal. Contact your local mental health group* for family support groups. Knowing that you are not alone in this journey can be life saving. And you may find you are more on track that you realize.
What are suggestions you would tell to families trying to support a loved one with a mental illness?
© Victoria Maxwell