When The Apple Falls Close to the Tree
11 important things to know about parents, kids, and mental health.
Posted June 28, 2015
1. Every kid acts "crazy" now and then. But roughly 1 out of 5 children has experienced (or at some point, will) a genuine, disabling mental health disorder. (See https://www.nami.org/getattachment/Learn-More/Mental-Health-by-the-Numb…) That’s not crazy behavior--it’s beyond the child’s control, and it can be devastating for everyone.
2. That overwhelming anxiety, rage, or sadness you feel every time your kid “loses it,” might be a sign that the apple has not fallen far from the tree. In many cases, a child with clinically significant psychiatric symptoms has a parent or other family member(s) with the same, often undiagnosed, issues. This can be a bitter pill to swallow, but take a deep breath and swallow it--you’re better off dealing with the problem than pretending it’s not one.
3. Genetic legacy is not (generally speaking) a moral issue, nor is it an intentional act. If it were, most of us would have good reason to hate at least one of our biological parents! Fortunately, I’ve never met or heard of a person who thought it would be fun to pass along some crappy genetic flaw or other to their child. So give yourself, your Dad, Great Aunt Frances, and Grandpa Melvin a pass. It wasn’t intentional.
4. Sometimes it’s more than genetics. A parent who struggles with mental illness may create or contribute to a troubled family environment, which can trigger or exacerbate psychiatric issues in other family members. What’s the answer? If you recognize your inner turmoil and outward behaviors as atypical, or destructive, get help ASAP! Ask your doctor, your partner, a trusted clergy-person, your best friend, your own parent(s), or the Google Meister where to start. (Be aware, though, that Google can mislead you. Chances are good you DON’T have terminal brain cancer or Fatal Familial Insomnia. Probably all you need is some ibuprofen or a stiff drink--on second thought, warm milk with honey might be the better choice--so you can finally get some decent sleep.)
5. Some mental health disorders are highly treatable. The earlier you acknowledge what’s staring you in the face, the better--because treatment (therapy, at-home interventions, and when needed, medication) can make the difference between living well and barely managing. I’m not just talking about your kid, by the way--I’m talking about you, too! You might be amazed by how much better you feel after you address your own emotional issues. And by how much better you can do the job of parenting your challenging kid(s).
6. Other mental illnesses can be very hard to treat. With just about any psychiatric disorder, discovering the “best” cocktail of therapies and medications is often trial and error, and it can take a long time. I have personal experience languishing on that ol’ hamster wheel--exhausted, going nowhere, but unable (or unwilling!) to leap off. Keep running, Hamster, keep running! Eventually things will get better.
7. Except when they don’t. For some people--children and adults--severe mental illness is a terminal disease. This is a cruel truth, but true nonetheless. Certain signs are easier to read than others. The first place to start might just be your extended family: if you know your paternal aunt ended her life at age 26, and your father is often emotionally absent, or visibly depressed, or prone to engaging in self-destructive behaviors, and ditto for your middle sibling, who attempted suicide more than once in her teens and early adulthood--PAY ATTENTION. Even if you’ve sailed through most of your own life on placid seas (except when the family dramas shook things up), your kids may be more like the rest of your family than they are like you. Genetics is a lottery. And by the way--when Ferdinand Magellan decided to name the great ocean "Pacific," he was dead wrong. There be monsters lurking down there in the deep, and when they erupt, people get hurt. Be watchful, get help early. It’s never a certainty that severe psychiatric disorder will end in death--only a possibility.
8. Just because your first child is charmingly “normal” doesn’t mean the next one (or two or three--have I scared you enough yet?) will be, too. If Kid Two seems “off,” maybe he is. Then again, maybe not. Decoding kids’ behavior is about as easy as reading The Iliad in ancient Greek when your degree was in electrical engineering. And don’t even get me going on THE GREAT BOOK OF PARENTING. I’d rather tackle Finnegans Wake, thank you very much--there’s a better chance it’ll make sense to me. BUT. There is nothing better, or more rewarding, than being the best parent you can to the kids you’ve got. The easiest, and most loving way to do that is to keep your eyes open--and your heart. Learn to know them and know yourself. As soon as it stops being useful, show Denial the door. If your kids need help, find it. If you or your partner needs help, make it so. It’s amazing how far demonstrative and unconditional love, and a proven commitment to healing, can go toward making even the most challenging family life happier.
9. Sometimes things go very, very wrong--even in a family that has never known that kind of “wrong.” While your bipolar disorder--or the behaviors it caused you to exhibit--never landed you in front of a judge, in rehab, in juvvy, or worse, your teen may land himself in some serious trouble.
You may have done all the right things, or you may have done nothing at all to address his illness or yours. Life can be random like that. At least, that’s how I see it. Hear this truth, think it through, and then store it away in your neural filing cabinet. I hope you will never, ever need to retrieve it--but if you do, know that even doing everything you can for a child under the grip of serious mental illness may not be enough. Know, too, that help is available for you and other loved ones bloodied by the flak of any explosion to which you bear painful witness.
10. Meditation, exercise, making music or art or love, reading, being with people who “get” you and care about you, or anything else that “fills your well” can get you and your loved ones through a lot. Not all, but maybe just enough to keep you going.
11. Last, but certainly not least: don’t forget chocolate. German, Belgian, and Swiss work pretty fast--and taste great.