Five Musts for Parenting a Child with Mental Illness

1. Find a Qualified Mental Health Professional

Misdiagnosis and inappropriate treatment can compound your child's mental health issues. Finding an experienced and highly qualified mental health professional is the critical first step in understanding and managing your child's specific mental health challenges. The right doctor will begin the process by devoting adequate time to understanding facts about your child’s physical, medical, and emotional history. This should include gathering background information pertaining to family history of mental health problems and substance abuse, as well as a thorough review of reports from school administrators and staff.

Seek a recommendation for a quality mental health provider from your pediatrician or family physician. You may also check with your local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) who will connect you with a variety of resources to help you locate a mental health professional in your area.

2. Identify the Proper Treatment Strategy

It is important to understand that identifying the best treatment strategy is a complex process. In many cases children with mental health issues benefit from a combination of medication and therapy. There are a wide range of options in both areas. Play therapy may be effective for small children who lack the ability to articulate their feelings. Adolescents may respond better to certain types of psychotherapy, such as cognitive therapy, which teaches patients the ways that negative thought patterns contribute to their emotional and physical feelings and how to manage those thoughts. Since a child's mental illness impacts siblings and parents in the household, family therapy might be useful. When speaking with potential therapists, be clear about your goals. It is a good idea to ask questions about things like what the typical treatment timeline is and how progress is measured.

3. Seek the Support and Assistance of Your Child's School

Although the idea of opening up to your child's teacher about mental illness may seem very uncomfortable, it can lead to the development of a strategic partnership that will tremendously benefit your child. Consider the fact that your child's teacher can only help your child if they understand what is going on and what the specific challenges are. Arranging for a brief meeting at the beginning of each school year can go a long way toward heading off issues that are likely to occur without clear communication. Volunteering in the classroom and for outings can provide a valuable opportunity to see how your child functions with peers and in new environments. These situations may also help you to identify events that trigger problems for your child.

4. Pay Attention to Cues from your Child

Being aware of your child's moods and symptoms is an essential part of managing their mental illness. Keeping a record of your observations will provide you with valuable data to review and share with the doctors, therapists, teachers, and others who are supporting you in this process. Tracking moods and behaviors can help you to identify and predict when instability or problems may be triggered. In addition to mood and behavior, track observations such as sleep patterns, energy level, and appetite. This information about your child can be used in making determinations about the effectiveness of therapies and treatments being employed.

5. Understand that Diagnosis can be Evolving

The process of diagnosing and treating kids with mental disorders is complicated and often evolving. Children with the same diagnosis may have significantly different symptoms, and different illnesses can have varying symptoms. A child's diagnosis may also change as they get older and new symptoms manifest.

Adding to the complications of pinning down a diagnosis is the shifting landscape within the field of medicine and mental health. New studies and research continually challenge conventional wisdom and reshape the approaches to diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. This means it is essential to remain current on the latest discoveries and to make sure your child is in the care of mental health professionals who make sure they are knowledgeable about the latest news and research developments in the field.


This guide was developed as part of a project made possible by a Grant from the Ohio State Bar Foundation.  The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the Ohio State Bar Foundation.

Lead researcher/author: Shannon Meyer, J.D. Candidate, 2018, RedTreehouse.org Legal Intern