Challenges of Parenting a Child with Mental Health Concerns

Challenges of Parenting a Child with Mental Health Concerns

Parenting is challenging task. There is no rule book. If your child follows the trajectory of elementary school, high school then higher learning with few concerns eg bullying, social challenges you and your child are in a class of your own.

Did you know that

  • almost 3.2 million children aged 12 – 19 have experienced a major depression.[1]
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death in youth. In Canada, suicide is the second highest cause of death for youth aged 10-24. Each year, on average, 294 youths die from suicide.[2]
  • 34% of Ontario high-school students indicate a moderate-to-serious level of psychological distress (symptoms of anxiety and depression). 14% indicate a serious level of psychological distress.[3]

Anxiety in teens is increasing. Many factors have been named as the cause – more pressure to succeed, more pressure to get a “good” job, increasing cost of education/living, promoting an attitude that “I can do anything” early in life, bullying, social challenges to name a few.

There are also limited resources to help youth with mental health issues. Often the no fee or sliding scale services are limited and have lengthy waitlists. Private practice therapeutic support is the only timely option. This can be expensive and not affordable all parents.

As a parent, you may feel alone but the statistics say you are definitely NOT ALONE. What can parents do to help their sons and daughters?

  1. Identify the concern

What is happening to your child? What are the symptoms?  Talk with your child and ask them to share their thoughts feelings experiences. This is a time to only listen to what you child is saying – no matter how unfamiliar it feels or sounds.

Compile a list of these symptoms and observe your child for more changes or behaviours that are new or not usual for your child.

Your child needs your help to navigate the system so they can get the help they need. Suspend your judgements at this time – it is hard….but developing a positive comforting relationship with your child is crucial to support your child during this difficult time.

Get a diagnosis. Sometimes this can take time.

  • Identify triggers/stressors

Help your son or daughter identify the triggers or stresses in their life which causes the feelings or symptoms. Is school a stressor? Is you child an over achiever and puts too much pressure on themselves? Are they being bullied? Do they have friends? Is the workload too much? Do they need your help to break it down into manageable pieces so your child does not get overwhelmed? Do they have too many things to do – school, job, sports, social obligations, volunteer positions?

Keep in mind that your child’s brain is still developing, their body’s are changing, the expectation of being independent and responsible can be really exciting for some youth and frightening for others. Despite the fact that our teens act like they don’t need us – they do need our help sometimes.  Dan Siegal, a psychiatrist and pioneer in the field of interpersonal neurobiology, illustrates how parents can support their teens to identify stressors in their lives in his video “Name it to tame it”. This video can be viewed at

  • Identify where to go for help

This can be a difficult task depending on where you live. Cities usually have more resources than more rural areas. If something is happening with your child your first stop will be your family doctor.  It can be helpful for parent to be present during the appointment. Remember that our teens do have a legal right to their privacy so your teen has to grant permission for you to attend their appointments. This is another reason why we need to be aware of what going on with our teens,,,,we need to be their advocates so they need to trust we are on their side.

This link has some valuable resources for you if you live in Toronto

If you don’t live in Toronto then do a google search for free mental health services, or try

  • Family Services agencies in your location (for example Family Services York Region, or Family Services Durham or Family Services Thames Valley) provide counselling on a fee for service basis with a sliding scale based on income but there is often a waitlist,
  • Kinark Child and Family Services, Canadian Mental Health in your area, and
  • your family doctor can recommend resources as well.
  • Check your local hospital for child and adolescence in patient and out patent services. Not all hospitals have these programs.
  • Check your benefit package at work. You might have Employee Assistance Program that will provide short term counselling or you might have some coverage for a few sessions with a private practitioner – check the qualifications carefully. Insurance companies don’t cover all practitioners.

This can be a very challenging part of helping your child. Waitlists can be long so call when problems emerge and ask for referrals. It is best to be on the waitlist and when you are at the top if you don’t need services ok…but if things have worsened you will be grateful for the services. You are you child’s advocate – it is hard to find help for yourself when you are depressed, anxious or delusional. Our teens NEED our help and support.

  • Managing waitlist

This is one of the most frustrating parts of caring for your child. Some waitlist can be long, sometimes months, or even a year. Some agencies provide interim services such as groups or single service/walk-in therapyTake advantage of these services. An anxious child can learn they are not alone if they attend a group for mindfulness or anxiety. This can be very comforting. I know it sounds a bit counterintuitive but it can be useful for some youth. Let’s face it hearing more strategies from others can help to reinforce self empowerment. Also knowing that you are not the only one suffering is also very liberating.

Walk in therapy or single session therapy can be VERY USEFUL. Therapist can provide many resources or skills to decrease stress that can help minimize stressors. It can be helpful to talk to someone outside the family. These single session services can be a life saver as you wait – normalizing experiences, supportive techniques and tools, additional strategies for you and your child.


  • Managing your feelings of helplessness and grief

As a parent, we have bandaged scrapped knees, handled friend breakups, learning to drive – we have helped our children navigate the challenges of life. Mental health is not as easy to manage besides this is something your youth has to also navigate in their life. Some mental health issues may occur once or be a lifelong experience.

It is very difficult seeing our children in ongoing distress. A 14-year-old saying they don’t want to live anymore is heartbreaking – possibly even triggers a bit of parental self doubt. Educate yourself on mental health concerns and remember to take care of yourself as well as your child. Remember the services mentioned above can also be useful for you, the parent, to develop coping strategies, understand the mental health challenge and suggest other resources.  They might even reassure you that you are doing all you can for your child.

Dealing with mental health of your child is very difficult but can be made harder if you have a partner who is “not on board “. If your partner feels that the depression your child is experiencing is “they are just being lazy, stop coddling them” this can be very hard for both you and your child. Your child needs to know you believe them.  Caring for a child with mental health can be very stressful and draining, but doing it alone feels isolating, confusing and scary.

Sadly, there is still a stigma around mental health disorders. Others don’t understand unusual or erratic behaviours. Others tend to understand and be empathetic towards physical illnesses but tend not to be so compassionate for mental health challenges. They may wonder why you cannot control your child. Friends may back away, leaving you feeling even more alone.

Medication is another challenge. First, it is the question as to weather you medicate or not. This is hard choice to make. Listen to what the professional say – pros and cons – consider your child distress and decide. Sometimes medications get a bad reputation – you might not think twice about giving your child antibiotics for an infection – so sometimes we need to educate ourselves about medications and mental illness to feel better about using them. 

Another ongoing challenge with medications is that often doctors need to “adjust” dosages and drugs to find the right fit. This means repetitive visits to doctor and pharmacists. Seeing your child change as a result of medication is also very difficult to watch. We want to see a happy child not one that is altered because of the medications. Many antidepressants can take up to 6 weeks to see effect – this can feel like an eternity. Remember that there are many people successfully using antidepressant medication. According to one report 9 % of the Canadian population is taking an antidepressant[4] – that is 3,330,000 people across Canada.

If you opt the alternative medicine route, make sure you consult with a trained professional eg Naturopathic Doctor versus self research on the internet /Dr. Google. You want to make sure that you are supporting your child in a healthy effective manner and understand the timelines to expect change. It is helpful to have a professional to talk with when your child is in distress. It is impossible to be both parent and professional.

We also have to factor in the time away from work for appointments and sick days of our child. Depending on your work situation this can be an extra layer of stress and pressure.

Yes, Grief is in the title. As a parent, you know that a mental health issue can change your child’s life trajectory. At one point, your child had everything in front of them and now they cannot get out of bed, or have behaviours that will not promote positive job placement.

We have to grieve the loss of those expectations, let them go, and still believe in all the possibilities for our child’s future. We all believed our child would do great things. We may have envisioned them as independent entrepreneur and now you worry that their future looks bleaker …we have to come to terms with where our child is right now. Remember this may be a blimp in the journey – our child needs the skills to manage what they are feeling so they can life to THEIR fullest potential.

Tomorrow…next year may be different…but right now those dreams you had for your child are not being realized. You see so much potential in your child it is hard to let that go and be with our child in their world now. So, we grieve “what could have been” and accept this new journey. This can be a lonely journey. Seek out others who have children who are experiencing similar mental health issue. Get support.

Keep in mind, famous productive people have had mental health challenges that they have overcome.  Michael Phelps won 14 gold medals used swimming as a way to ease the symptoms of ADHD. Check out for more. (acknowledge this might not be the most accurate site)

Emma Stone reportedly used her acting skill to over come anxiety / panic attacks (again I acknowledge this might not be an accurate site)

If you do a search for celebrities with depression, bipolar or choose your mental health challenge and you might discover a number of familiar names. Keep in mind that not all information on the web is correct 😊.

It is important to realize that mental heath challenges do not doom your child! This is just a part of their journey.

  • How to help your son or daughter

It is hard to manage when your child has been recently diagnosed or if the doctors are still trying to assess your child. Below are some tips from a good article! Please read their article as well.

Listen and Don’t Judge

            It is hard to relate to what our teens say at the best of time, however, when they are saying they are seeing things that you can’t see, or feeling like ending their life, or cutting to help ease the pain, or having behaviours that are hard to manage or just can’t go to school as it is too anxiety producing! It is hard to listen with an open heart but this is important. Our children need to know we hear them, believe them, and want to help.

Listening without judgement can really help us to be present with our child. Sometimes it helps to ask yourself, “What would you like if this was happening to you?”

Educate yourself about mental health – who knows maybe you will think of something that works that no one else has.

            Learn about anxiety, depression, psychosis, ADD – the more you know the more you can help your child (and yourself)! Knowledge helps. It will help you find help, care and support for your child and you.

Find resources, groups, anything to support them

As you search for understanding of your child’s experience and look for helpful resources. Whenever you get on a waitlist ask if there are other resources. New groups and help open (and close) with funding so always, always, always ask for additional sources of support or help. Do regular internet searches. This can be a very frustrating experience as affordable services are limited but keep working on it…do short bursts of searches….and celebrate small gains.

Hug your child – let them know you care

            Your child will be grateful that you are on their side and advocating for them. They need your assistance to navigate a challenging system! Let them know that with affection (hug) and / or words (I love you or sorry you are experiencing this)!

Remember to also have fun times with your child – movie night  or a trip to the zoo or  can go a long water/amusement  park way to decrease stress.

Be Patient with yourself and your child – this is a difficult time

            This is paramount. This is a very difficult time and you need to BREATHE, take your time, understand that the journey will be frustrating and slow. Understand that your child is struggling and they don’t want to disappoint you. Find ways to support yourself and child eg mindfulness, faith communities and exercise can be very helpful

Create a supportive environment

Make your house comfortable and stable as much as possible. Understand what your child needs to feel balanced and create it as much as possible.

This goes for the parents as well you need a supportive calm environment as well.

Decrease stress – create structure[5]

Structure helps to create predictability. Predictability creates safety. The more safety, the calmer people can feel.

What kind of safety does your child need? What do you need to feel safe?

  • How to help your family

Educate them about mental health and treatment. Knowledge is a powerful ally.

Encourage them to listen and be non-judgemental and if they cannot then you might need to make more changes re visits etc

If extended family are resistant – build in resources for your child when they are in contact. Look at alternative way to connect with family.

  • How to help yourself

Self care – take time for yourself

    Listen to your favorite music

    Go for a walk or to a yoga class or meditate

    Take time to connect with your feelings and thoughts – find ways to deal with them.

     Develop positive coping strategies – support groups, exercise, mediation, mindfulness, counselling

Find things that are fun to do – work towards finding balance amidst the appointment and chaos that is now your life.

Take up knitting again, take small projects with you to appointments – makes endless waits more tolerable. Make sure your child also takes along fun things, too

Audiobooks or podcast can make time waiting easier, learn new skills, or create an opportunity to be entertained.

Remember is you are in a couple relationship to also find time to enjoy each other, connect with each other (not just about your child)!

  • How to keep your son or daughter safe

Believe your child


Include them in things

If they say they want to hurt self or others and they tell you they have a plan to do so, TAKE THIS SERIOUSLY and go to hospital and ensure your child is safe.

DO some research to find the hospital that have an in-patent adolescent unit. If you can take them to that location – if it is a crisis take them to the nearest hospital.

Please visit this website as it has a list of many useful crisis contacts information for Toronto

In York Region 1-855-310-COPE (2673)  or

Check out this link for additional services some crisis some not

To find emergency numbers, do a search for crisis, emergency and mental health help.

Kids Help Phone is also a great resource  check it out now with your child.

Make sure you find the right numbers for your situation and have them ready.

Finally, be gentle with yourself. Find the supports you need. Be aware that others will always have opinions. Some are helpful while others might be hurtful.  Be prepared to manage these situations. If you have to step back from some people or situations to help you manage then do so. This is a time you have to reserve energy for yourself and your child. Don’t spend undo energy helping people understand. I have permission to share a situation that happened to a parent who wishes to be anonymous to keep her son’s story private.

“One morning, my son refused to get out of bed as he was convinced there was someone in his room who would harm him if he left his bed. There was NOONE in his room. Despite efforts to prove to him he was safe – it was a long morning. Needless to say he did not go to school so arrangements had to be made to keep him safe.  When I got to work I shared this story with a couple trusted coworkers. As I told the story, I laughed a bit…the story sounded so out there.

My coworkers listened and made some good suggestion but also suggested that there may be a parenting element involved.  I was shocked and a bit hurt that they thought that all the problems I had been having with my son were because I didn’t parent him right! I thought they knew me, believed in me, and yet they weren’t there to support me – it was upsetting.  I learned to be careful what I say to whom, and to be prepared to be disappointed.

I have since developed a thicker skin, looked for other outlets for my stress and talk to these coworkers with limited explanations. I feel sadness, I wish things were different but I move forward, hug my son often, have many positive words of wisdom and encouragement for myself, find things to make me laugh and give me moments of joy, I have a couple people I can speak freely with. These help! “

Your child’s world is changing and so is yours.  So might the people around you – that IS OK!  Be aware there will always be nay sayers but you know your child and yourself….have hope, share love, and make sure to laugh or enjoy at least one thing everyday!

Know that you are not alone…there are others out there!




[4] Antidepressant use in Canada among the highest in the world: OECD. Tencer, Daniel.


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