When I worked with teenagers in a highly intensive treatment facility I was constantly reminded of the issues associated with their mental health diagnosis. The manifestation of symptoms like self-mutilation, acting-out, depression, and resistance to authority, served the purpose of giving me direction as to how to best treat and care for them. Yet, like many therapists, I never truly realized the magnitude of the terms "diagnosis and disorder" until I was the one sitting on the opposite of the desk. Recently someone I know was diagnosed with a mental health condition and all of the sudden nothing made sense anymore.
Asperger's Disorder, DSM-IV: 299.80. I know what Asperger's is. I've studied it. I've treated it. I was never scared of it—until now. Suddenly, I felt the cold, harsh sting of reality as I realized—for better or for worse—how the parents of my young patients must have felt when I handed them their child's psychological evaluation. How their hearts must have broken to read in black and white type a synopsis of what was wrong with their child instead of what was right. Saying the diagnosis to a parent was something I had done many times, but hearing it was quite different. In this moment, you can no longer separate and compartmentalize the disorder as someone else's issue, you subconsciously own it and in an instant, it becomes very real and very personal.
The Grieving Process:
Grieving is a natural process when children are diagnosed and one that is not often addressed. Sometimes parents are embarrassed or feel impolite admitting that they feel emotions that are not politically correct. They are typically upset, angry, disillusioned, anxious, and depressed about what has happened to their child. Yet parental grieving is absolutely necessary to move on and help their children succeed despite a report that often says they can't.
Many parents feel that they have lost part of their child—her hopes, dreams and her childhood. They even lose the dreams they had for her. What they don't realize is how much they've gained—the ability to understand, sympathize, and work toward building a strong relationship with her by knowing what she needs and how to best give it to her. By acknowledging how one feels and addressing it, parents can learn how to accept and adjust their expectations as well as find peace and healing for themselves and their family.
The most difficult part for many parents is admitting that they have any of these feelings to begin with. After all, it's not popular to look at your child's therapist or your best friend at a dinner party and say, "I'm so angry about this! What did I do to deserve it? Why can't I just have a normal kid like everyone else?" Not only are these feelings natural, they are necessary to get to a healthy place where you can truly focus on your child's needs and help them achieve their dreams.
Six Healthy Ways to Cope with Your Child's Diagnosis:
- Allow yourself space and time, literally. Carve out time when you allow yourself to think about what has happened and to cope with it. For some parents, reading a book on their child's mental health disorder is helpful because it calms their fears by giving them additional resources and information. For others, going for a jog or hitting a yoga class helps clear their heads. Give yourself time to get used to the idea of the diagnosis and what that may or may not mean for your child and your family. You must take care of yourself first to be the best parent you can be for your child.
- Get a second opinion. It's alright to seek a second opinion if you feel there is the chance of misdiagnosis or you just want to be absolutely certain. There are some conditions and mental health disorders that are complicated to diagnosis and are often missed on the first go-round. Just don't get caught up in going to every doctor in town "trying to prove" that your child is fine when all of the the evidence points to the contrary. Denial can be a very powerful emotion and one that can cause more harm than good for you and your child in the long run.
- Your child is not a diagnostic label. A label does not make your child who they are. Remember, a mental health diagnosis is just that - nothing more and nothing less than a cluster of symptoms packaged together to ensure your child gets the best treatment possible. Labels are the mental health communities way of helping your child. The truth is that most therapists do not like them either - it's simply a necessary tool used to get your child the services he or she needs and deserves. A diagnosis is not your child nor is your child the diagnosis. She is the same person you've cared for and loved all of her life.
- Don't be afraid to ask questions. When your child is first diagnosed with a mental health disorder you may feel overwhelmed with all of the medical and psychological terminology as well as the M.A.'s, Ph.D.'s, LCSW's, and M.D.'s sitting across the desk from you. Never allow yourself to remain a silent bystander in your child's treatment. If you have a question, ask it. If you don't understand something, question it. You are your child's biggest advocate.
- Diagnosis and treatment is a family process. Children are never alone in their diagnosis. When your child is diagnosed, so is your family. This is not a literal interpretation, but rather a representation of how families feel and respond to the impact of their child's disorder. If your son is bipolar, then his actions and the consequences arising from them will manifest within your family structure and cause the family unit to fall into chaos or to work to rise above it. For this reason, many parents chose to attend family, group and/or individual therapy sessions. It's helpful to look at it this way, when your child was born, you were in it together—you loved him unconditionally, promised to take care of him, and vowed to be the best mom or dad that you could be. Despite pain, anger, and heartache, there should be no difference in how you feel about him now, just the determination to find a way to make it better.
- Don't blame yourself or your child. Try to see all of the conflicted feelings surrounding your child's diagnosis an opportunity, not as a failure. It's easy to wonder, "How did this happen to my son?" or "Did I do something wrong?" Ignore those voices. The only purpose they serve is to hold back your ability to help your child. Likewise, it's never alright to blame your child for his diagnosis. There is no blame or shame in being diagnosed, only the strength to face it and the courage to conquer it.
The journey that lies ahead for you and your child will have it's share of difficulty, heartbreak, joy, and pain, but it is one well worth taking. Now that I know what it means to be personally invested in a diagnosis, I've found I'm a better friend, mother, sister, spouse, and therapist. I am more sensitive to the needs of my patients and the needs of my loved ones because I have a better understanding of how to help them and how to help myself. And, with time and courage, so will you.