While we often make light of very serious topics, we want to make sure that we are providing you with useful information on all of the issues your family faces. This month we talked to Jenn Ebbott, a trained therapist specializing in working with children, who offers us some great advice on parenting a child with a mental illness.
Nikol: How important is parental involvement in the therapy process?
What role should medication play in the treatment process?
This is a very individual question. I think that children with diagnosed mental illnesses should be assessed by a Board Certified Child Psychiatrist, and the role of medication should be explored. Medications are rarely the “magic pill” that will solve mental health or behavioral problems for children and families. The best practice standards often call for a combination of medication treatment and psychotherapy. The benefits, side effects, and contraindications should always be identified and a decision made by parents and clinicians together.
It can be very easy for a parent to wonder what they did to cause their child to be mentally ill. While it’s alright for a parent to experience those feelings, how best can the parent process that kind of thinking without causing further stress to the family?
There are support groups available for families with members with mental illness. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) is a nationwide organization focusing on Support, Education, Advocacy, and Research for people with mental illness. There are local chapters in all 50 states. Parents call also access their own therapy to process these feelings. I think it’s necessary for parents to have a safe and supportive place in which to work through their feelings of guilt, disappointment, anger and grief. Kids need their parents to be there for them, and the best way to do this is to take care of your own needs.
A lot of American families are currently un or under insured. How can they receive important mental health services for their children that are still high quality?
This is such an important, and difficult question. Each state differs in it’s availability and access to health care coverage for children. Insurance companies differ in their policies regarding determination of need. The best advice that I can give for families is to to educate yourselves and get an advocate. Use resources like NAMI and your pediatrician or family doctor. School social workers and county human service departments often have a lot of information on local resources. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has a great website with a lot of information for families, including this factsheet.
Are there things parents can do at home that can help the entire family (including themselves, other siblings, extended family) better understand what the child suffering a mental illness is going through?
Yes, having a dialogue is very important. Relaying age-appropriate information to family members can have a significant impact on the family’s response to a child with mental illness. Many therapists will offer family sessions to provide psychoeducation to the family, and ways to support each other and the child with mental illness. I think finding ways to have frank discussions while avoiding stigma and shame is a critical piece to a healthy family response. It’s also important to not avoid the obvious. Parenting children with mental illness often requires different skills and strategies, and being up front about this with siblings and with other family members can help to alleviate confusion and disagreements.
Jennifer Ebbott MSW, LCSW
Jennifer is a TheraplayTM trained therapist with experience working in both inpatient and outpatient mental health settings with children, adolescents and their families. She has over 10 years experience working with youth of all ages and has had advanced training in child development and working with families. Jennifer has a Master’s Degree in Social Work. She has provided training and education to parents, daycare staff, and various professionals.